Once upon a time, Oakland had something called the Police and Fire Retirement System (PFRS) (PDF). PFRS is a long and interesting story on its own (well, not really PFRS itself, but money stuff related to it), which I will have to reserve telling until another day. All you really need to know is that we don’t use it anymore (today everyone gets CalPERS), and the PFRS system is underfunded to the point where the City is probably going to have to cough up around $56 million annually starting in 2011 to cover it.
So, if your husband has a pension from his job, and he dies, you keep getting his pension for the rest of your life. You’re entitled to that money just as much as he is, the State of California considers pensions community property. Now, when the PFRS system first started, widows who were eligible to receive their former husband’s pensions would become ineligible if they got remarried. The idea being, I suppose, that in some weird antiquated way of thinking about women and inheritance and such, is that if you got remarried you were now your new husband’s responsibility to take care of, and God forbid you have any means of support of your own.
Anyway, we amended the retirement plan in 1986 to be more sane, so that widows who remarried in 1985 or later would continue to get their former husband’s retirement benefits even after the second marriage. (This is normal – CalPERS does it this way too.) Of course, this amendment left out some people – widows who had remarried before 1985 still did not get the pensions. There are three of these women still alive, not receiving retirement benefits from PFRS because they remarried before 1985. One of the women’s husband died naturally while still working at 60 after 35 years of service. The other two were killed in the line of duty. The women are 96, 84, and 58 years old.
Now, the Police and Fire Retirement Board wants to change the system so these three women will get those retirement benefits. Doing so would require voter approval. The Council’s Finance & Management Committee considered a request on Tuesday to place such a measure on the ballot (PDF). Under the proposal, the women would not receive any retroactive pay. They would simply start receiving current benefits. The total cost over the lifetime of all three women is estimated to be $1.7 million. Initially, the annual cost would be $237,000.
Incredibly, the Committee declined to move the proposed measure forward to the full City Council. (This isn’t the first time they’ve denied this request either – it’s come up at least twice before.) District 5 Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente said that the City simply couldn’t afford it:
One of the things I really believe is that, especially pension and medical benefits, obvously it’s a benefit that we have to protect not only for the past but for the future and for our employees, in this case OPD. I sit in a pension in the private sector and I can tell you that I have gone through situations like this, where for whatever reasons, at some point there’s changes in the plan where a group of people don’t get either an additional benefit or less benefit, and it’s tough, but at the same time, overall, I think that 1% or 1/2% over the long term of 20 years is gonna be a lot of money.
And I know that it’s not specifically directed to this, but it is. Because the contribution that’s gonna be required in 2011, It’s going to be 50 or 60 million dollars, so I think that it plays a role. I also believe that our City employees have enjoyed a very good pension, and I – in all good conscience, with the budget that I’m seeing and with the deficit that we see in front of us, I cannot support this.
Of course, this isn’t an issue of these women not getting additional benefits, or getting less than other people. They’re receiving nothing. Pat Kernighan and Jean Quan agreed with him, suggesting that the City simply cannot afford to add $1.7 million to the obligations to the PFRS system, which, at the estimated 2011 rate, would be like $1.12 billion over the next 20 years. Which is so unbelievably wrong. But it gets even worse. District 3 Councilmember Nancy Nadel, incredibly, said she didn’t think we should give pensions to remarried widows at all:
As a widow myself, I am not supportive of somebody who’s getting remarried still getting benefits. I think that’s really generous and I never got any benefit from my husband’s passing, but I’m just amazed that we still have this. As opposed to supporting this, I’m wondering if we have the opportunity to undo any benefits to widows who remarry.
Then she asked the City Attorney to look into whether or not we could just undo the payments to remarried widows permanently!
I can’t even decide which of these positions is worse. Nancy Nadel’s ideas about women are totally bizarre. But at least it’s ideological. Quan, De La Fuente, and Kernighan, who presumably acknowledge that a woman is not simply the responsibility of whoever she happens to be married to at the time, are willing to deny money that should rightfully be theirs to widows because the City has budget problems. And not just widows, police widows. And not just police widows, widows of policemen who were killed in the line of duty! And not just deny these women their money, but deny the voters of Oakland the choice of whether or not they want to pay these three women.
The only public speaker on the item was Sanjiv Handa, who berated the Committee for their incredibly hypocrisy, the way they lamely talk about social justice and equity all the time, but won’t even let the voters decide if they want to provide survivor benefits to three widows. I have never been in more agreement with Handa’s comments:
I cannot recall the last time I was so sickened by something the City Council did. Quan and Kernighan want to increase the amount of money the City gives from its General Fund to non-profits providing after-school programs, but they’re not willing to pay spousal retirement benefits to a lousy three widows because the City is too poor? What’s wrong with this picture? It’s just completely morally bankrupt and all four of these Councilmembers should be ashamed of themselves. This is a question of basic human decency. It isn’t the widows’ fault that the City has a budget deficit, and it’s totally fucked up to punish them for the Council’s own poor financial planning.