Awaiting consensus

The long-anticipated compromise pension reform plan still has a couple of key critics

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Mayor Ed Lee's pension reform proposal was unveiled May 24 with support from some of those who helped develop it, including investment banker Warren Hellman, Rebecca Rhine from the Municipal Executives Association, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce head Steve Falk, and San Francisco Labor Council Executive Director Tim Paulson.

The plan would dramatically alter the way the city manages employee retirement benefits, starting July 2012, while exempting employees who earn less than $50,000. Lee described it as "serious," "comprehensive," and a plan that "reflects consensus."

Already the legislation to place it on the fall ballot has secured the cosponsorship of Board President David Chiu and Sup. John Avalos, rival candidates for mayor. Other mayoral candidates also offered their support, including former Sup. Bevan Dufty and City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

But there is one notable exception to the support for this plan, a party that has been at the negotiating table where it was crafted: Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents about half of the city's 26,000 employees. The union claims the plan disproportionately affects 500 SEIU members, who are mostly women and people of color and already took large pay cuts last year to avoid layoffs.

Avalos, who described Lee's proposal as "a sensible approach" and "the right way to go," has said that if SEIU's concerns aren't adequately addressed, he'll withdraw his sponsorship.

"I'd like to get to a consensus, but if we don't and 10,000 union workers don't sign on, I'm going to take my name off as a sponsor," Avalos said. "We have to find ways to pay for pension benefits without decimating jobs and social services."

Lee's measure also didn't win over Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who claims the proposal won't make deep enough or fast enough cost savings in the next few years, so he will continue gathering signatures to place a rival measure on the ballot.

So rather than the consensus product Lee hoped the whole city family would be able to convince voters to support, it's looking like pension reform could again be a divisive issue and one that spills over into this year's mayor's race.

Chiu thanked "our brothers and sisters from the labor community" when Lee announced his pension measure, noting that "each city worker that makes more than $50,000 would have to give thousands every year." He supports the pension deal and hopes SEIU will eventually back it. Avalos and Sen. Leland Yee, another mayoral candidate, seem to be waiting for SEIU to sign on before offering their full support.

Mayoral spokesperson Christine Falvey told us that Lee views SEIU's concerns as separate from the pension reform proposal. "He appreciates SEIU's input in the pension reform talks and has committed to sitting down with them and trying to resolve this issue."

Then there's Adachi, who helped qualify Measure B, a 2010 pension reform proposal that united labor and city leaders in opposition. He continues to gather signatures to qualify a competing pension measure, needing about 50,000 signatures by early July unless Lee amends his plan to secure greater cost savings in less time.

"My focus is on this issue," Adachi said, praising Lee's efforts at achieving consensus. "But is this going to solve this problem so we don't have to come back within two to three years? It comes down to a math problem."

Adachi says Lee's plan doesn't adequately address the city's need to save money now.

"The stress period is really in the next four years, so my hope is that the mayor's proposal could be strengthened," Adachi said, noting that his proposal yields $90 to $144 million in annual savings, compared to $60 to $90 million annually under Lee's plan.

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