Councilman Bobby Shriver has some guts, or could it be he’s so confident in his approval ratings (the member of the Kennedy clan has received the most votes in every council race he’s entered) that he feels like he can ruffle a few feathers. Either way, the Daily Press has to give him credit for tackling a politically-sensitive topic like employee pensions and rising healthcare costs. While we don’t agree with Shriver’s singling out Santa Monica’s police officers, even though they do have one of the most generous benefits package in City Hall, we believe it is necessary for our elected officials to seriously address this issue, given that employee benefits seem to be one of the main reasons for City Manager Rod Gould calling for the half percent sales tax increase, that and the struggling school district and lackluster economy.

The five-year budget forecast presented Tuesday by Finance Director Carol Swindell clearly showed that pension costs for City Hall are projected to rise considerably, taking a relatively large bite out of the budget. A baseline scenario for the next five years shows a potential budget deficit of over $12 million. A worst-case shows more than $26 million. Now that’s not all due to pension and healthcare costs, but the reality is the stock market would have to rebound like Lamar Odom for Santa Monica to see some savings when it comes to contributing to the state’s pension system, otherwise known as CalPERS, which relies heavily on its investment portfolio to cover its liabilities.

We thought it was interesting that Mayor Richard Bloom and Councilwoman Pam O’Connor, both of whom have received generous support from the unions representing police officers and city employees, were quick to defend the amount of money spent each year on public safety. Cynics could say, “Hey, they know where their bread is buttered.” Maybe. Or perhaps both know their community well and believe residents won’t stand for anything less than the best.

We think Santa Monica is a safe city and maybe it is time, as Shriver suggested, to look at doing without one or two officers and spend that money on other services, like subsidizing recreation programs for kids or contributing more money toward infrastructure projects, something that may need to happen if redevelopment money is swiped by the state. The city manager tried to cut two police lieutenant positions from this year’s budget, but he was turned back by the council, which preserved them under heavy pressure from the police union. We’d be amazed if the council decreased the number of officers during budget talks in May, but it’s something to consider.

Shriver said publicly that he knows it’s politically risky to talk about cutting the public safety budget in Santa Monica, a community that is very concerned about keeping crime at a minimum and seems to love its cops, but as a civic leader he knows addressing costs is critical.

When Gould meets with the bargaining units representing city employees, police and fire in the coming months to negotiate new contracts, we believe he is going to push for them to agree to paying more for healthcare and possibly create a second tier for new hires who would contribute more toward their retirement. We have said before that we believe pensions for those who risk their lives should be protected (you don’t want a 60-year-old cop chasing down bad guys), but it is time for those employees to pay more for their healthcare, just as the rest of us in the private sector do. As for other city employees, we know some of you work hard, but it’s necessary for you to start contributing more and have benefits more in line with what the rest of us receive. It’s fair, and it’s necessary if Santa Monica is to continue to enjoy the many services City Hall provides. Either that, or raise more taxes and fees, and who wants that?

The Daily Press may take some heat for this, but like Shriver said, we can’t keep ignoring that “800-pound gorilla” any longer. If we do, Kong is going to cripple us.

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