Calgary city councillors will attempt to rein in civic pensions.
Of all the cans our civic leaders can kick furthest down the road, future pension payments for those currently working on the public payroll remain the handiest targets.It’s simple enough: today’s elected officials don’t have to pick up much political cost by increasing a future funding ratio or tweaking a contribution rate or two so far ahead of when the cash and benefits are eventually drawn down and the true cost exposed.Nope, by the time the poor, bemused taxpayers finally figure out how badly they’ve been stiffed, then the councillors and mayor who agreed to this will have long since flown the cosy coop — taking with themselves a hefty pension, of course.Things are far different and the blowback immediate if civic unions, as an example, get five per cent pay hikes, especially when the poor saps that must then shell out increased taxes are themselves just happy to receive any sort of paycheque. Naturally, that causes a few hairs to stand on many a neck.But if — nudge, nudge, wink, wink — our leaders instead declare a worthy commitment for the sanctity of the public purse and thereby only agree to a two per cent increase then, somewhat reluctantly, taxpayers shrug and wearily accept it — “could have been worse, they wanted five but they got only two,” being the usual refrain.But often there was a trade-off behind those closed doors (that image should be the new Calgary crest, given our city leaders’ current preference for such a strange form of open government).More money going into the collective public employee future pension pot doesn’t cost much in the here and now and so can be tossed onto the bargaining pot with suitable aplomb. Down the road, however, that can, which has been so heartily kicked, finally sails over the fiscal cliff edge.Just ask cities such as Chicago and New York, which are almost bankrupt as a huge chunk of annual taxes now goes to pay ex-workers’ juicy pension plans. Meanwhile, ratepayers are fleeing to escape the ever-increasing civic tax grab to fund such past stupidity.Calgary isn’t close to that state. But as was once said, you go bankrupt slowly at first then all at once. So now is the time for some strident public debate, before we land ourselves along with future citizens in the financial soup.So today there are a couple of motions before city council that could lead to some real and public due diligence on this issue. If we’re going to play kick-the-can, then let us at least do so in the full glare of sunlight so we can see where it leads.Coun. George Chahal wants an outside consultant to review the various city workers’ pension plans, something he reckons has never been done properly.Meanwhile, colleague Jeromy Farkas also wants council to take a look at their own pensions, claiming Calgary’s plan is juicier than other Canadian cities. He also wants to scrap a current rule allowing Mayor Naheed Nenshi to receive a second, supplementary pension. Oh boy, no wonder he isn’t flavour of any month, down at city hall.“This is the first step in tackling the bigger issue of rising salaries, wages and benefits at city hall,” Farkas said. “The current council is not to blame for this situation, but we have an obligation to step up and fix it.”It was them lot before us is always the handy excuse, but at least someone is raising the question now before we dig an even bigger hole.So if councillors and the mayor want to show any leadership at a time when the hurting just goes on and on for many Calgarians, then they won’t succumb to the usual tactic of moving this behind closed doors on some fatuous privacy excuse before eventually allowing the whole idea to die on the civic vine.Kicking the can down the road, in other words.Chris Nelson is a regular columnist for the Calgary Herald.