City pensions and looming electricity rate increases were front and center Saturday as 10 of the 13 candidates for City Council faced off at the first election forum of the campaign season.
In front of about 80 people at the Oakmont Country Club, nearly all of the candidates said they would support changes to the city's pension system. Several suggested increasing the retirement age as well as reducing the percentage of one's salary collected at retirement.
Even former city employees supported changes, despite the pension reform the city has already undergone. In 2010, when rank-and-file employees wouldn't accept suggested changes to their contract, the City Council voted to trim salaries by 1.5%.
Ex-Neighborhood Services Administrator Sam Engel said while he's a strong believer in defined pension benefit plans, the current state of California's public pension system has caused “tremendous problems for the city.”
“In the public sector we need to bring those benefits under control,” he said, adding that rising healthcare costs need to be reined in.
Incumbents Laura Friedman and Ara Najarian have both supported a two-tier pension system that increased the retirement age for new employees and have asked employees to contribute more toward retirement benefits since 2009.
Both incumbents said they still plan to accept union contributions and endorsements, but that won't influence them when it comes to future contract negotiations. They both said they've been endorsed by the police and fire unions. Najarian said he championed campaign finance reform that limited union contributions to $1,000.
Other candidates said they would accept union support and several, including attorney Zareh Sinanyan and systems analyst Herbert Molano, want the endorsement of the Glendale Teachers Assn. Even City Hall critic Mike Mohill — who often rails against unions — said he'd accept their money, under certain circumstances.
While most approved of pension reform, the issues of electricity rates and a controversial multimillion-dollar transfer from Glendale Water & Power split the candidates.
Engel, Najarian and Friedman all said they supported the transfer, which puts about $21 million of utility money into the General Fund, which pays for police and other public services. Contenders opposed it, noting that council members continued to transfer millions even when Glendale Water & Power didn't have the funds for its own capital improvements.
The council voted to increase water rates last year because the water side of the utility was deep in the red. After the election, the council is slated to be asked to do the same for electricity rates.
“The city has been using GWP as a cash cow,” said Molano, a frequent council critic.
In addition to electricity rates, the new council members will be faced with approving a budget. For several years, Glendale has faced yawning budget gaps.
Incumbents said after cutting to the bone in July, there's not much more to trim. Ex-Zoning Administrator Edith Fuentes and Sinanyan said the city needs to focus on attracting more businesses to grow revenue streams.
While bankruptcy attorney Roland Kedikian agreed, he blamed past councils for Glendale's financial hardships. Last year the city slashed about 120 positions.
“The City Council's job is to plan,” he said. “Why did we get here? Why did we have to cut so many, so late?”