Advocates for more Sonoma County road funding are treading into the city of Stockton’s bankruptcy case — seemingly unrelated geographic and ideological territory for the local group of government watchdogs.
But the proceedings in federal bankruptcy court in Sacramento could set an important legal precedent in the municipal tug-of-war between funding for public employee pensions and other basic services, according to Craig Harrison, a Sonoma County road-upkeep activist.
As Stockton proceeds with its Chapter 9 court case, Harrison noted that pension plans for city employees are not on the table for renegotiation.
That sets a bad example for other city and county governments across the state dealing with soaring pension costs while struggling to pay for other services like road maintenance, Harrison said.
“Our point is that when a city is so fouled up financially and they are still not touching pensions, that sends a message,” Harrison said. The Santa Rosa-area resident and attorney is co-founder of Save Our Sonoma Roads, a group that has highlighted the county’s poor road conditions and pushed officials to increase spending on maintenance.
The Stockton case marks the group’s first major foray into the charged debate about public pensions. With the enhanced benefits granted by elected leaders in the past decade and massive investment losses suffered in the recession, government pension funds have turned increasingly to taxpayers to make up shortfalls. Their budgets already under pressure, state and local officials have trimmed or eliminated a range of public services.
Harrison and his allies have sought to tie the rising pension costs specifically to chronic underfunding for roads in Sonoma County, where pavement condition has consistently ranked among the worst in the nine-county Bay Area.
Political blowback has forced Sonoma County officials to address both issues in recent years.
On pensions, they have implemented state-mandated reforms and negotiated other changes to begin curbing skyrocketing taxpayer obligations, up more than 300 percent over the past decade, to $98.3 million a year, including county payments on pension bond debt.
On roads, county supervisors injected an additional $8 million from the general fund in the past two years to boost maintenance efforts.
Roads advocates point out that the extra money is a pittance after the county reduced its general fund contribution for roads over most of the past two decades. The current estimated maintenance backlog for the county’s road network is more than $920 million.
Still, Supervisor David Rabbitt, who has been highly involved in both issues, dismissed the assertion that pension savings alone could rescue county roads and fill funding gaps in other public services.
“It’s not a one-for-one savings,” said Rabbitt, the Board of Supervisors chairman. “It’s a lot more complicated than saying if we solved all of our pension woes then all the roads will be paved with shiny black pavement.”
In the Stockton case, SOS Roads filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that retirement benefits owed to city workers should not emerge unscathed from a municipal bankruptcy. The claim targets court rulings in California that have been strongly protective of the pension promises made to current employees.
Harrison said Sonoma County supervisors have been “handcuffed in labor negotiations” by those rulings.
His brief got the attention of the city of Stockton, which is asking a judge to throw it out.
The city has slashed millions of dollars in services but has sought to avoid a fight with CalPERS, the state pension giant, by not challenging its obligations to the retirement fund, which handles pension benefits for Stockton employees.
A hearing on the SOS Roads brief was set for Thursday.
Stockton’s bankruptcy attorney Marc Levinson suggested the legal move by Sonoma County road advocates was overtly political. He noted in a brief that Sonoma County’s pensions are overseen not by CalPERS but the county’s own independent pension system.
“At bottom, SOS Roads’ interest in persuading the court that CalPERS benefits may or should be impaired in the circumstances of this case appears to be its desire for a ruling that would enable it to cajole, shame, or bully Sonoma County into impairing non-CalPERS pensions and then using the money for road repairs,” Levinson wrote.
Harrison, who got involved in road advocacy to lobby for repairs to Sonoma Mountain Road, where he lives, said his group may weigh in on other cities’ legal battles if they can set precedent for Sonoma County.
“Stockton’s case was teed up for this,” he said.