Supe Confronts Unions, Runaway Health Spending With ... MATH!

In San Francisco politics, brazenly picking a fight with powerful labor unions is the equivalent of wandering into Yom Kippur services while wearing an outfit entirely made of bacon -- with shellfish for the buttons.

And yet, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd has done just that. At today's final board meeting of the year, Elsbernd will introduce a charter amendment aimed at curbing the city's runaway health care and retirement spending -- and also aimed squarely at the influential service and public safety unions.

You can't do that without some sort of mathematical analysis -- and now Elsbernd has one in his back pocket. The city's Department of Human Resources has put together a series of tables measuring the city's health care and retirement costs of a decade ago, today, and projected expenses five years down the road. And it's bad enough that one 10-year cost hike is actually described as "infinite." Yes, a staid government report actually used "infinite" to describe the growth of public expenditures. This is a riveting read.

Of course, those of you who shout when Star Trek contravenes the laws of physics will have already noted that you can't have infinite growth in city expenditures unless we're now spending infinite amounts of money. We aren't, though it does feel that way.

Here's the data. In fiscal 1999-00, the city contributed $300,000 to the San Francisco Employee Retirement System. In fiscal 09-10, that number has jumped to $200.5 million. Technically, that's 66,733 percent growth -- which is a lot, especially if you're paying library fines. But it's not infinite. Still, that's a metric shitload of money -- and it's projected to grow another 146 percent by 2014.

The Department of Human Resources report is filled with numbers almost this dire. Here's the highlight reel:

  • While the overall city budget has grown by 57 percent since 1999, workers' health costs have more than doubled and retirees' costs are up nearly 500 percent. By 2013, retiree costs are expected to have jumped by nearly 720 percent since '99.
  • Benefits as a percentage of total city employees' salaries have jumped from 23.1 percent in 1999 to nearly 36 percent in the present day; an employee with a base wage of $126,000 costs the city an additional $37,224 in benefits. An employee earning a modest $49,998 receives nearly $28,000 in benefits.
  • The $384 million the city paid in benefits costs in 1999 has surged to $890 million today -- and is expected to exceed $1.4 billion by 2013.
For a synopsis of exactly how Elsbernd's charter amendment would ostensibly tackle this situation -- it's complicated -- see here.

The supervisor today told SF Weekly that he's more optimistic about his proposal's success than he was even yesterday. "It's not getting smacked down as bad as I thought it would from some colleagues," he said.

Elsbernd hasn't yet gauged the feelings of swing supes like Sophie Maxwell and Bevan Dufty -- a mayoral candidate -- but he has met with John Avalos and Ross Mirkarimi.

"They were open-minded," Elsbernd said. "Nobody is saying 'Put my name on it as a supporter.' But no one is saying 'Absolutely not.'" 

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