Before Tuesday’s Stockton City Council meeting, AB 506 had been simply an intellectual exercise of Sacramento design. However, when the city council decided to embark down a path that could end in bankruptcy, AB 506 became a municipal reality.
The decision was not reached quickly or easily. The council members repeatedly mentioned that the fiscal turmoil had been brewing long before that meeting, and they’d been working under fiscal emergencies for the last three years. In fact, City Manager Bob Deis pointed to actions taken in the early 1990s that compounded current fiscal constraints.
Despite the reasons for the troubles, and in some cases because of some of the solutions implemented, Tuesday’s meeting was marked by strife – conveyed by comments filled with anger and criticism. But most of all, the speakers and residents expressed their hurt and pain.
So often, the dialogue around local government demonizes public sector employees. I’ve been accused of it, as have others. But for the public servants who work to deliver services – who show up to work day in and day out without glorification or recognition – they are the victims of other people’s agendas.
When Vice Mayor Kathy Miller commented that the speakers who all attended the Council meeting had an interest in continuing the City’s dysfunction, she was right. As pawns in the system, they all benefit by the city doing nothing. However, it is important to note that in most cases, cutting pensions and health benefits isn’t abstract; it’s personal.
Retirees in Stockton and across the state commonly receive pensions that cover – sometimes barely – the cost of their retirement. One speaker at the Council meeting gave evidence from her own life: the cost of her medications has increased significantly, while her pension stayed at $22,000 per year.
For those retirees, who will be thrown into the AB 506 process with all of the city’s creditors, the process is wrought with dangers. Mediation, by design, spreads the hurt of insolvency onto everyone. In other words, everyone gets a little hurt instead of a few receiving all of the pain. For her and other retirees like her, cuts that some might describe as modest could be excruciating.
I have nothing but the deepest empathy for those struggling to make ends meet, living on a fixed income, and are worried that promises made may become debts unpaid.
That pain and fear was written on the faces of nearly everyone gathered at Tuesday’s Council meeting. They expressed it just as many of us do: in anger.
Unfortunately, this process of AB 506 has never been attempted before. No one knows how it will go, or how it will end. However, it is a safe assumption that the anger, pain, and fear are far from over.
And as Stockton goes further, it will probably worsen before it improves.