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Public Life Without the Glamour: California's Public Employees

Updated on August 26, 2011

   The variety of careers in public service arise from the many needs of society. At the very least, we require energy and water to live; and if we can't produce them ourselves, we must pay someone to do it for us.

   Organized governmental institutions began to provide services many generations ago, and fees and taxes supported them. The work necessary to provide clean water, reliable electricity, and to make dirty water reusable requires planning, construction, and the operation and maintenance of the facilities that do the needed work. Because public funds are involved, the manner in which the work is accomplished is often a voter decision, and frequently becomes a hot political issue. The salaries, benefits and retirements of public service workers have become political issues as well.

Simplifying Technicalities for the Public
Simplifying Technicalities for the Public

   It's easy to appreciate firefighters, paramedics, soldiers and police officers... and rightly so. They save lives every day. But these aren't the only people out there working for us. Others are working to keep our streets safe, our parks clean, our library shelves stocked and our water pure. Yes, some of them are just doing jobs; and not all of them are dedicated to the faithful stewardship of the public trust. But the vast majority have given their best working years to us, and have become extremely proficient at "doing more with less". Many public agency jobs were eliminated or furloughed during the recent economic downturn; and cost of living adjustments are a thing of the past. Within five years the average service worker reaches a plateau at which salary ceases to increase. Because public jobs have traditionally paid less than private sector jobs, and many do not participate in the social security system, confidence in the public employees' retirement system has played a major roll in attracting qualified and talented people. Now that advantage seems to be in jeopardy.

A Salute to Public Service

   Somehow, in the last few years, a group of ambitious politicians managed to vilify a well designed public employee retirement fund. Because of a few over-publicized cases of abuse in the system, California's gubernatorial candidates formed a political platform based on the grossly exaggerated need for reformation of the country's healthiest and most successful retirement system. I often think about what my parents who didn't live to enjoy retirement would say now about the California Public Employees Retirement System, and the many years I've dedicated to public service. They'd probably worry for me that CalPERS would soon be gutted and left for dead like the Social Security System that let them down, and will not be available to most CalPers retirees.

   Thanks to a handful of crooks in Sacramento and in the City of Bell tens of thousands of people who have dedicated their working lives to ethical public service could be reduced to poverty in retirement. Your neighbor who works for the city or county is probably not a crook. He might be one of those who builds the streets you drive on, lights the roadways and intersections for your teenage kids, supplies the water for your tea kettle, and makes your sewage safe for the environment. He does it on weekends, holidays and while you're sleeping. He puts a little of each paycheck into a retirement fund that he hopes will pay the bills when he can no longer keep up with the younger workforce. The hope for a comfortable retirement seems to get further and further away everyday in this country.


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