Politics & Government

Ad Watch: Darrell Fong bashed for City Council record on budget, pensions

The business-funded committee Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy has sent out a mailer attacking City Councilman Darrell Fong’s fiscal record. The ad also praises Fong’s main opponent, Elk Grove City Councilman Jim Cooper. Both are seeking a vacant Assembly seat in the 9th District.

Following are a series of claims the mailer makes about Fong’s record, with an analysis by Jeremy B. White of The Sacramento Bee Capitol Bureau.

Text: Fong “voted for three unbalanced city budgets, higher sales taxes and millions in deficit spending,” he “pressured police and firefighters to cut their retirement – but didn’t cut his own $100,000 a year pension,” and he “has left his city with a projected $40 million budget deficit.”

Analysis: Lean budget years meant Fong spent the first part of his City Council tenure seeking to plug deficits, both by encouraging cops to help pay down pension debt and by advocating a sales tax bump. But it is disingenuous to say he advanced unbalanced budgets or saddled Sacramento with a deficit.

By law, Sacramento must have a balanced budget. While Sacramento has grappled with a series of budget deficits during the economic downturn, the Sacramento city manager certified as balanced each of the budgets for which Fong voted while in office.

It is indisputable that Fong has supported higher sales taxes in the form of Measure U, a sales tax increase he championed along with other City Council members. Voters approved the half-cent boost in a landslide vote when it appeared on the 2012 ballot.

Before winning a spot on the City Council, Fong served for decades as a Sacramento police officer. That entitled him to a pension that amounts to $9,245 a month, according to the California Public Employees Retirement System. Citing the pension, Fong for a time renounced the City Council salary he was eligible to draw.

It is true that Fong was among council members who sought to rein in ballooning police pension costs during tumultuous budget years. But to say he pushed cops to “cut their retirement” is not quite accurate.

Along with a majority of council members, Fong voted to make painful cuts to fire and police services. The underlying dynamic boiled down to a choice: agree to contribute money toward your pension costs, or we will be forced to cut your budget to get the city’s finances in order. In the end, police officers did not sign on to contributing to their pensions.

Fong also voiced his support in 2011 for phasing out a policy in which retiring city employees could claim buyouts worth tens of thousands of dollars. The Bee found that Fong had claimed a package worth about $85,000 when he retired from the Sacramento Police Department in 2009. He subsequently backed ending the severance program, telling The Bee: “Now does it make sense for the budget? I think things have changed.”

In fact, the most recent Sacramento budget suggests the city is in decent fiscal shape. For the first time in years, the city heralded a budget surplus. City Manager John Shirey projected a $2 million surplus in the coming fiscal year.

But Shirey sounded a note of caution about the future, and that appears to be what the mailer is referencing. His forecast anticipated budget deficits returning by 2016. If voters do not extend Measure U, Shirey predicted, that deficit could grow to $40 million by 2019.

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