Old Cop, Young Cop: Police Battle Retirees Over Pensions

Jackie Mason once noted that if a crook is bothering you, you can always call a cop, but if a cop is on your case, you can't call a crook. A question pressing San Francisco is who do you call when retired cops are after you? The city's answer: A lawyer.

A legal procedure initiated earlier this year by the retirees political action committee Protect Our Benefits seeks to undo a key provision of last year's Proposition C — the "City Family" pension measure. If successful, a clause the controller's office estimated would save San Francisco $300 million over 10 years will be scrapped. Regardless, the suit has opened a rift between the city's retired and active police officers. Gary Delagnes, president of the Police Officers Association, calls the retirees' move "the epitome of greed." But the strongest backer of the Protect Our Benefits suit is the Veteran Police Officers Association (VPOA) — the POA's own retiree group.

At issue is the way the city doles out supplemental Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs). Before Prop. C's passage, the city gave its retirees a supplemental COLA whenever its retirement plan outperformed its benchmark — regardless whether it was fully funded. This led to a $170 million payout in 2010, even while the fund was still reeling from the massive losses of 2008. Prop. C did away with that; the city now will only disperse such payments when its retirement plan is fully funded. This doesn't figure to be anytime soon.

In yanking away a vested benefit without offering anything in return, the city violated retirees' state and federal constitutional rights, argues Protect Our Benefits chair Larry Barsetti — who is also, hardly coincidentally, the executive secretary of the VPOA. While it dings current workers for higher pension contributions during bad times, Prop. C holds out the possibility of lower payments during good times (even if those good times probably won't come before 2030). Retirees, however, didn't get such a quid pro quo — even an arguably illusory one. City officials last year told SF Weekly that a retiree lawsuit regarding this matter was far from unlikely and even admitted that Prop. C "pushed the envelope a little."

Protect Our Benefits is trying to earn the state Attorney General's permission to bring its suit as "the people." If denied, Barsetti says it simply will sue the city in Superior Court.

"I will not allow anyone to take away my contractual rights without negotiating with me," Barsetti continues. "The unions and the city conspired against the retirees, and I am furious, frankly. We want our rights. We're entitled to them. And we're gonna get them."

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