Detroit’s shaky exit plan

Detroit just followed Stockton out of bankruptcy. But will pensions drag it back to Chapter 18? It’s a distinct possibility, the New York Times reports.

“Even after the benefit cuts, the city’s 32,000 current and future retirees are entitled to pensions worth more than $500 million a year — more than twice the city’s annual municipal income-tax receipts in recent years,” the Times reports.

Good God. Detroit is relying on fairly rosy investment return projections. The judge never should have allowed that.

Even if Detroit’s investment returns meet expectations, its pensions remain underfunded. That is an aspect of pensions many people don’t understand.

“People have the idea … that actuarial funding schedules were designed to produce enough money to pay for the pensions, “which they are not.”

“All those eye-glazing board meetings, the bewildering calculations, the talk of “required contributions” and research on whether cities are paying them or not — those things have apparently confused the public into thinking that as long as an actuary follows the standards, and a city or state follows the actuary’s advice, a solvent public pension system will be the result.

“Not so.”

So that this post does not become “eye-glazing” I’ll leave it at that — public sector pension policy fobs the full cost of pensions off on the future: a crazy, greed-based policy with the potential to lay a city low again. Those standards should change.  Anyway, the Times story is recommended for its fiscal literacy.

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Steve Stocking, 1938-2014

Belatedly — because I took a couple days off — I lament the passing of retired San Joaquin Delta College botany professor Steve Stocking. He was 76.

Steve Stocking at a vernal pool, April 2014

My relationship with Stocking was typical of relationships I have with numerous community experts. I occasionally sought him out. More often, though, he e-mailed to comment and expand on any biology-related subject on which I wrote.

Any subject. For instance, when I wrote about Monkey Puzzle trees — erroneously, because nobody could tell them from Bunya-bunya trees — Stocking wrote to clarify which was which.

These Araucarias can be grown in pots but more often in parks and on large estates as they get BIG. We had some at Delta College but they got in the way of recent construction. I don’t know if any are left?
 

The Bunya-Bunya. (Araucaria bidwilli) is the one with the largest cones. It has the largest, spreading, stiff-pointed green leaves and has been rather widely planted. (Congregational Church on Madison). The Monkey Puzzle Tree (A. araucaria) has smaller cones with the leaves tight to the “rope-like stems, we had one at Delta but I have not seen many around.

References: Sunset Western Garden Book

Manual of Cultivated Plants+

When I wrote abut vultures roosting repulsively in north Stockton, Stocking chimed in after the fact again.

I don’t remember many vultures around Stockton….but anyplace there is roadkill they show up to help clean up. We had them sitting on the power pole and flying around here yesterday. They clean up deer, racoons and others hit

by cars.

Sometimes large groups gather in the trees on their southern migration in the Fall. Maybe we are having an early Fall. They come from as far north as Washington and go to southern California and Baja.

“Vultures are ever on the lookout for carrion, which they both visually and by detecting drifting molecules of decay.” They rarely hunt living prey. 

(Birds of the Sierra Nevada 2013)

Note the citations to reference books. Obviously it is valuable for a general interest columnist to have sources such as Stocking. Professionally they are good resources and personally they are incredibly enriching, a means to lifelong learning most people cannot enjoy. I’ll miss him on both levels.

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Bloggus interruptus

I’ll be off Monday and Tuesday.

See you back here on Wednesday.

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A most disgraceful eviction

The city’s eviction of poor people from the City Motel with five hours’ notice — putting some out on the street — is one of the coldest, most disgraceful things I have ever seen the city do.

Yes, the City Motel was a dangerous dump, perhaps the worst in the city. And quite likely the landlord was a slumlord and a scofflaw towards city codes. And maybe some of the tenants were there because they made bad decisions.

But you don’t treat people this way. It’s that simple.

Of course — the usual disclaimer — there may be more to the story than reported. We shall see.

Given what has been reported, though, we are witnessing a case of city government at its most callous. Such mistreatment of lowly people cannot be justified. Any policy that enables it must be changed. And change should start with helping the evictees find a roof over their heads.

UPDATE: I visited the City Motel and spoke at length with officials. The evictions are not as heartless as they appear. Which is not to say there is not plenty of room for improvement. I’ll expand in Sunday’s column.

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What scuttled the Google barge

Fire safety concerns deep-sixed the floating technology showrooms, reports the San Francisco Chronicle, citing a Wall Street Journal story.

The WSJ got Coast Guard e-mails through a Freedom of Information Act. In them Coast guard officials express serious reservations to Google’s contractor, Foss Maritime Co.

Foss assured the Coast Guard that no more than 120 people would be on board at once. The Coast Guard remained leery, “saying that, should a fire break out, people would be forced to jump overboard,” the Chron reports.

A Coast Guard official wriote to Foss: “I am unaware of any measures you plan to use to actually limit the number of passengers. While I understand there is a sense of urgency, I am concerned that significant work has already been performed without full consent of the Coast Guard.”

Evidently “full consent” was never obtained. The showroom was ultimately towed to Stockton in a blaze of media coverage. It’s still here.

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Bankruptcy, straight outa Compton?

City officials deny it, but a think tank ranks Compton as California’s most fiscally distressed city.

Reports the L.A. Times: “In 2011, Compton’s general fund had a $40-million deficit because for years officials used the city’s water, sewer and retirement funds when the general fund ran short on cash, the report said.

Two other Southern California cities, Maywood and San Fernando, are also on the brink, the story says.

 

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Bad news for “weak” mayors

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s strong mayor initiative went down in flames.

Even though Johnson successfully championed the downtown arena and remains popular, Sacramento voters rejected his bid for more power by 57 percent to 43 percent (with a few ballots uncounted).

Stockton Mayor Anthony Silva, like some of his predecessors — Gary Podesto comes to mind — chafes at the limitations on the mayor’s statutory authority. He has repeatedly spoken in support of expanding the mayor’s role.

But if Johnson, who has a support rating of 60 percent, can’t persuade voters to give him more power, the prospects for Silva to accomplish such a charter revision are somewhere south of nil.

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“Red tide” could lift the Valley

“That is because two issues on which President Barack Obama and GOP lawmakers conceivably could strike a deal — immigration reform and free trade — are vital to a Valley economy that is recovering from the Great Recession and battling California’s merciless drought.”

So says the Fresno Bee. Whether voters just elected the bipartisan Republican Dr. Jekyll or the extremist gridlock guy Mr. Hyde remains to be seen. Voters are obviously fed up with the economy and a host of other issues, and I think both parties know their standing is precarious and based on results. So perhaps we’ll see some movement on these issues.

 

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Stockton in six words: enter today!

Today at 5 p.m. is the deadline to submit your entry into the contest to say what you like (or don’t like) about Stockton in six words.

A couple examples of entries I’ve received:

—Where rivers and cultures come together.

—99 cent stores with layaway plans.

Join the fun!

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Post-election review

As I wrote earlier, Christina Fugazi flat out-campaigned council member Dyane Burgos-Medina. The strange thing is observers saw it happening months ago and predicted Burgos-Medina would lose if she didn’t bump up her game.

Fugazi’s election likely does not shift power on the council. It’s a bit unclear. Much about Fugazi remains unknown. She is articulate and hard-working, but it is not reassuring to see her on today’s page one standing next to Sam Fant. Fant, one of Mayor Anthony Silva’s questionable friends, is under investigation for links to illegal internet gambling.

To those worried, Silva has gained an ally, Fugazi says she is independent. Time will tell. What can be said is she is in a different class than Rick Grewal, a Silva friend who lost in his bid to unseat incumbent Elbert Holman.

That was a good thing, not just because Holman is seasoned and capable or because a coalition of Silva supporters could be a disaster. Grewal seemed short on deeply thought-out positions. When questioned he’d say he thinks out of the box. Before he runs again, he should do some of that thinking on a detailed platform.

Susan Lofthus, the other new council member, is a bit of a blank slate too. But the genesis of her candidacy reportedly involved Silva foes.

Still to come is the appointment of another council member, one to fill the seat vacated by Kathy Miller, who won election to the Board of Supervisors. Miller is pushing a replacement. It is astronomically unlikely the council will approve a diehard Silva supporter.

Another way to look at it is that the council has swapped Fugazi for Paul Canepa.  The balance of power appears to remain largely the same.

The water bond passed two-to-one statewide because proponents de-linked it from the controversial twin tunnels. The drought did the rest.

Though Stockton was a state hotbed of opposition, the bond passed by a virtual landslide in San Joaquin County: 78 percent.  Perhaps that was in part because the opposition was environmental and based on obscure, complex objections, while the drought was clear to all. Delta area political leaders voted for the bond (and even helped craft it).

Measure C, the charter revision, was small potatoes. But it did de-link the mayor’s salary from the salary of the chairman of the board of San Joaquin County. That the two were ever tied together was just another fiscally foolish recipe for perpetual raises. Good riddance.

 

 

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    Michael Fitzgerald

    Mike Fitzgerald is The Record’s award-winning metro columnist. His column runs in the paper three times a week. Born in San Francisco, he was raised in Stockton. His column covers diverse beats including, sometimes, the offbeat. Read Full
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