Public Pensions Spiral Out of Control, Driving City Into Bankruptcy

Public employee unions make the false claim that public employees are underpaid and undercompensated.  But the reality is just the opposite.  Not only are public employees well-paid compared to the private sector, but their pensions and benefits are so huge that some local governments will go bankrupt in the future, while many more will have to raise property taxes to skyrocketing levels.

In today’s Washington Post, George Will’s column “Pension Time Bomb” describes how the city of Vallejo, California is already going bankrupt because of generous employee pensions and compensation.   In Vallejo, a “police captain receives $306,000 a year in pay and benefits, a lieutenant receives $247,644, and the average for firefighters — 21 of them earn more than $200,000, including overtime — is $171,000. Police and firefighters can store up unused vacation and leave time over their careers and walk away, as one of the more than 20 who recently retired did, with a $370,000 check. Last year, 292 city employees made more than $100,000. And after just five years, all police and firefighters are guaranteed lifetime health benefits.”

USA Today had a story earlier about how public employees are much better compensated than people in the private sector, with an average compensation of $40 per hour compared to $26 per hour.

But some uninformed people continue to claim that public employees are underpaid because they don’t benefit from “corporate profit and private wealth,” like this letter writer who believes that teachers can’t live on less than $100,000 per year.  But private-sector employees aren’t compensated that well, nor are they compensated as well as public employees, even in prosperous regions that have growing economies and governments with limited powers of taxation.

Take Arlington County, Virginia, a relatively-wealthy suburb of Washington, D.C., whose regulatory and tax powers are somewhat limited by the Dillon Rule.  The average person employed in the County made about $75,000 last year, a little higher than the $71,148 received by the average teacher (teachers are less well-paid than many public employees).  But the teachers have much better benefits, valued at $27,636 even for a junior teacher making only $60,000 per year in salary — giving public-school teachers an overall compensation that’s distinctly higher than most of Arlington County’s private workforce, which is largely college-educated and skilled (and higher than that of private  professions like accountants).