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L.A.'s public safety pension costs steadily growing

August 16, 2012 |  2:39 pm

 Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

Taxpayers in Los Angeles will see retirement costs for police officers and firefighters climb by 56% over the next four years, even after passage of a ballot measure that trimmed the pension benefits paid to new hires, according to projections released by city budget officials.

Pensions and retiree healthcare costs for sworn employees are projected to consume $789 million of the city's general fund budget in 2016, up from $506 million this year, according to figures prepared by budget analysts. Every dollar in the general fund that goes for retirement costs can't be used for other expenditures, such as library books, park hours and police salaries.

The numbers were prepared for the city’s labor negotiations committee, which is comprised of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and four council members. That panel met Tuesday to consider the mayor's plan for rolling back retirement benefits for newly hired civilian employees, such as librarians, landscapers and street repair workers.

The changes, which include a bid to increase the retirement age to 67, would not apply to police and firefighters.

City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana defended the current focus on civilian workers, saying L.A. leaders already have wrung savings from the public safety retirement system, thanks to a ballot measure approved in March 2011. That measure targeted newly hired police officers and firefighters.

“It wasn’t that we picked one [group of employees] over the other,” he said. “The mayor and the council directed us to address both the civilian and sworn pension systems. The difficulty is that we weren’t able to reach a consensus with civilians.”

Santana said the increased costs are due in part to the continuation of hiring at the Police Department.

Business leaders, along with former Mayor Richard Riordan, have been pressing Villaraigosa and the council to take action on steadily rising pension costs, saying the city is in danger of going into a financial death spiral. Among their proposals is a ballot measure to take control of civilian pensions away from the mayor and council and turn it over to voters.

Retirement benefits for L.A. police and firefighters are already in the hands of voters. Last year's ballot measure pared back the size of pension benefits for newly hired police officers and firefighters, undoing some of the increases approved during the Riordan era.

Even with those reductions, police officers and firefighters retained the ability to retire with a pension that is equal to 90% of their annual salary.

By comparison, Villaraigosa wants newly hired civilian city workers to collect no more than 75% of their annual salaries once they retire. The mayor's plan also called for civilian pensions to be calculated based on an employee’s final five years of employment, not the final year, Santana said.

Retirement costs for civilian employees are expected to absorb $342 million of the city’s general fund budget this year, growing to $496 million by 2016, according to city budget officials. Of the money spent by the general fund on retiree pensions and healthcare, 60% goes toward police officers and firefighters.

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-- David Zahniser at Los Angeles City Hall

Photo: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa speaks in Los Angeles in August. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

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