Time for Government Budgets to Turn A New Leaf?

In 1971 Elaine May wrote, directed and starred in the now-classic “A New Leaf.” May played the awkward and painfully shy heiress Henrietta Lowell who has taken refuge in an academic career in botany and left the handling of her household and fortune to her hired help. The hired help, given full check-writing access to her fortune and overseen solely by her lawyer who in turn is receiving handsome kickbacks from the staff, is living high on the hog, pulling down breathtakingly high salaries, with expense accounts to boot. Meanwhile, Henrietta must habitually take the bus because her chauffeur is never to be found when she wants him; and her mansion and its grounds, despite the huge staff, are neglected and in total disrepair.

As Henrietta’s dysfunctional household is but a subplot of the film, I doubt Ms. May meant the movie as a commentary on the dysfunction of government — but when I see items like the following, it’s the most apt model that comes to mind:

The number of San Francisco retirees or their survivors knocking back $100,000 or more a year in city pensions has grown to 709.

That’s 229 more than last year. It’s also 124 more than for all of Los Angeles – a city with more than four times San Francisco’s population – according to figures freshly provided to the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, a pension reform group.

Those in San Francisco who have earned a ride on the golden highway include six former police chiefs, four former fire chiefs or their widows and a slew of former department heads.

The highest pension – $242,000 – goes to former Police Chief Earl Sanders. He got a $20,000 bump this year, thanks to a cost-of-living increase.


A new civil grand jury report on pension costs said there was a widespread practice of “spiking” in the police and fire departments – the practice of members getting temporarily promoted in their final year on the job to bump up their retirement benefits.

The report also said that more than half of the police and firefighters who have retired since 1998 are getting paid more in retirement than when they worked.

Though perhaps extreme, San Francisco is hardly unique in such practices. Cozy I’ll-scratch-your-back-and-the-next-in-line-will-scratch-mine practices deliver unaudited expense accounts, bonuses, and golden nest eggs to retirees far beyond just the police and firefighters reported herein. “Spiking” is reportedly practiced in nearly every government office, including public colleges and universities, and other common practices include the imminent retiree’s being able to “buy” credits for more years of service to bump up his/her pension. And, of course, in addition to pensions we mere taxpayers can only dream of, government retirees also receive generous medical and dental coverage.

So the next time you see a headline quoting government officials as having “no choice” but to cut social services to the destitute, and close firehouses, schools, and libraries, you may want to ask who’s got the checkbook and if they’ve given the outlays a sniff test lately.

Mary L. G. Theroux is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute. Having received her A.B. in economics from Stanford University, she is Managing Director of Lightning Ventures, L.P., a San Francisco Bay Area investment firm, former Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Salvation Army of both San Francisco and Alameda County, and Vice President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California.
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Beacon Posts by Mary Theroux
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