( Col. Tyrus W. Cobb, U.S. Army retired) – A USA Today op-ed published in the RGJ argued that planned cuts to military pensions in the bipartisan budget proposals are defensible [Another View, Jan. 3] .
Specifically, the reductions would decrease cost-of-living adjustments by one percentage point a year and impose higher co-payments for health coverage. The piece stressed that costs to the Pentagon incurred by continuing the present system are unsustainable and will necessitate severe reductions in weapons acquisitions and operational readiness.
Although I am an Army veteran with 26 years of service, including two combat tours in Vietnam, I can understand the Pentagon’s rationale for containing personnel costs, which now account for 55% of the defense budget and are rising rapidly. I can support the planned reductions if — and this is a big if — other government entities first rein in their public employee compensation, which is rising so fast it threatens to overwhelm budgets from the federal to the state and especially at the local level.
Last year, federal civilian workers averaged $114,976 in compensation — $81,704 in salary and $33,272 in benefits. Meanwhile, the country’s 104 million private- sector workers averaged $65,917. That is, a federal worker receives 74 percent more compensation than the average worker. It’s worse at the local level.
Yes, the Pentagon should be concerned that personnel costs now eat up 55% of its budgets. But here in Reno, that figure has jumped to over 87 percent, and it’s not much different in Sparks or Washoe and Clark Counties.
Look at salaries and benefits for the top-paid employees in this region.
Assistant fire captains, who manage maybe three stations, make on average over $245,000 a year! The district attorney in Clark County retires after 30 years of service and, by buying a few more years, now gets a retirement income of $150,000 annually. North Las Vegas Deputy Fire Chief John Oceguera, in the year that he also served in the grueling job of speaker of the Assembly in the Legislature, took home $432,000 just from the fire position.
Yes, there have been instances of egregious, often illegal behavior — arranging to be sick months in advance, rigging the “call-back” system, padding the number of personnel needed on a fire truck, etc. That is a small part of the problem — the generous compensation has been won legally over the years due to the increasing power of public-sector unions, mandates such as “collective bargaining”, and an unwillingness to confront these special interests. Employees wrap as much overtime, sick leave and other forms of payment as possible into their last three years to spike their retirements.
Darn, sure wish I were paid “overtime” for my 26 years in the Army. In Vietnam, we were never off! What would my pension be like if I got paid overtime for that, or for the 24/7 demanding schedule required in the six years I spent at the White House? And what about those Soldiers, Marines, Navy and Air Force veterans who have sustained multiple deployments to the combat zones in the war on terrorism? And of the permanent mental and physical injuries they have suffered?
Yes, the military must do its part to achieve more sensible budgets, and we will. But not if politicians are unwilling to rein in public employee compensation at all levels.
(Col. Tyrus W. Cobb, U.S. Army retired, lives in Reno. This column was originally published in the Reno Gazette-Journal on January 19, 2014.)