What others say: Rethink retirement

Published: Thursday, July 21 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

The following editorial appeared recently in the San Jose Mercury News:

Retirement isn't what it used to be, on several levels.

For true retirees — people living entirely on investments and fixed incomes — confidence in having a comfortable life with lots of travel and golf is less common than it was a few decades ago. In the private sector, fixed-benefit pension plans mostly have given way to 401(k) savings that are at the mercy of the stock market, which has not been especially merciful in this decade.

Then there are the retirees (and here we have a vocabulary problem) who are not really retiring at all.

The latest reminder was news that retired Santa Clara Police Chief Steven Lodge, whose pension is $200,000 a year, is returning to work for the city just months after he left — now as a $100 per hour consultant on security plans for the 49ers stadium.

This is neither unusual nor limited to top-level retirees. Police and firefighters who retire in their early 50s — how many really stop working? This is not retirement as most of us think of the word. So it grates on the taxpayers footing at least part of the pension bill.

A similar vocabulary disconnect has occurred with sick pay, which should go back to being for when you're sick. When people hear sick leave has become a slush fund in parts of the public sector, and workers on the public payroll are "retiring" in their early 50s and getting another job — like Chief Lodge — it sounds like a scam. This is not the fault of the public employees, who are legally entitled to the compensation. It is simply an untenable trend because so many taxpayers today can't hope to achieve the retirements and other benefits they're helping to fund.

Raising the age at which workers can start taking their full retirement benefit may help public perception as well as help control public costs. San Jose is looking at this. It's how Social Security works. If you collect early, you get lower payments.

It's also time to think about the future of government, particularly at the local level, where the services residents value are all about the people delivering them, from cops to librarians. The systems we put in place in this crisis have to allow for better compensation when times improve. But it should be in salaries, bonuses and contributions to pension and other benefit plans rather than promising higher fixed, future benefits.

This will help neutralize the anger over retirements that really aren't and over and sick pay that has nothing to do with being sick.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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