BANG editorial writer Daniel Borenstein led the 
pension reform debate for years, but it failed to 
scare East Bay officials to join his calls for austerity.

Prola: ‘I don’t respect him. I don’t respect his paper’

By Darwin BondGraham and Steven Tavares

PENSION REFORM DEBATE | “Dan needs no introduction,” said Richmond Mayor Tom Butt at an April city council meeting, as Daniel Borenstein, an influential columnist and editorial page writer for the Bay Area News Group, walked up to the microphone to talk to city leaders about Richmond’s retirement debts. “For people on the city council who have had to run for office, we’ve all been out there to [Borenstein’s] inquisition where he has thrown obscure terms at us, and quizzed us on what we’re going to do about it, where he’s thrown fear into the hearts of all of us,” Butt said with a smile.

Borenstein quickly launched into his Power Point presentation. He warned that Richmond’s unfunded retirement debt was $446 million, or $4,150 per resident, calling it the “biggest enchilada.” The city’s retiree medical benefits debt totaled another $125 million, he said. His essential argument — one that he has repeated dozens of times in columns and editorials — was that, over the years, Richmond, like many cities, contributed too little to its retirement fund, building up an unfunded liability that could lead to financial catastrophe. “It’s like charging last night’s steak dinner on your home mortgage,” he told the councilmembers, using one of his favorite folksy sayings.

For much of the past decade, Borenstein has been waging a campaign against what he views as the financial irresponsibility of elected officials and public sector labor unions, zeroing in on one issue in particular: public employee pensions. In columns and editorials, he has warned that looming debts threaten to “strangle,” “choke,” and “bankrupt” communities. He’s called public employee pension systems “unsustainable,” and scolded cities such as Oakland for “living beyond [their] means.”