Editorials

Sacramento can’t wait too long on retiree health care

City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby is running for mayor with support from the police and firefighter unions. She and the rest of the council must decide how to reduce the city’s bill for health care benefits for retirees, including police and fire.
City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby is running for mayor with support from the police and firefighter unions. She and the rest of the council must decide how to reduce the city’s bill for health care benefits for retirees, including police and fire. Sacramento Bee file

Sacramento City Council members talked a good game Tuesday night about how important it is to deal with the city’s huge bill for retirees’ health care.

But then they bailed, sending the issue back to a committee.

That’s disappointing. It would be irresponsible if the council somehow delays a decision until after the election next June.

It wouldn’t, however, be shocking. Four of eight council seats and the mayor’s office are on the ballot, and the police, firefighter and other employee unions are powerful, well-financed forces in local campaigns. They have a lot at stake on retiree health.

But so do taxpayers, since paying this benefit could eventually force cuts in services.

Everyone agrees that the $452 million unfunded liability for retiree health care – a big part of the city’s “wall of debt” – must be addressed. The decision is how quickly to reduce the total – and how much pain to inflict on employees and retirees.

For the first time, the city this year set aside $1 million on top of the $10 million annual cost of the benefit, but that’s far short of fully funding retiree health care in advance. Tuesday night, city staff presented four strategies that include moving current workers into health savings accounts at retirement or eliminating the health benefit entirely for current employees.

Any changes will have to be bargained with the unions; the contracts with the biggest ones don’t start expiring until June 2017. City negotiators need strong, clear direction from the council in those talks.

Council members directed their budget committee, which has already debated the issue, to study it again and hear from employee unions. It’s uncertain when the full council will finally take it up, though some mentioned before passing the next city budget in June.

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who is running for mayor and boasts the backing of the police and fire unions, made sure to praise firefighters for agreeing to pay into a trust fund to help pay the health benefit. She neglected to mention, however, that retirees and firefighters hired before January get much more than other employees.

The city’s finances should be a core campaign issue. Voters should pay close attention to whether she and other council members act responsibly.

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