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Our view: With wild ride ending, Bergson can steer through retiree crisis

Ten months ago, Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson announced he'd forego re-election, stating he had but one fight left: fixing the city's mounting retiree health-care mess. The crisis was still unsolved two months ago when a pair of prominent businessmen...

Ten months ago, Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson announced he'd forego re-election, stating he had but one fight left: fixing the city's mounting retiree health-care mess. The crisis was still unsolved two months ago when a pair of prominent businessmen encouraged him to reconsider, and the mayor hinted he just might.

But this week, Bergson seems to have closed that door for good, saying he indeed will call it quits when his term ends in January.

"At some point you run out of gas," he told reporters on Monday, explaining he loves the job but not the toll the 24/7 responsibility has taken on him and his family.

"It's been a real roller coaster the past few months," he added.

The past few months? How about years? His tenure has been rocked by events of his doing -- his drunk-driving arrest, the note-on-the-door firing of his chief aide, the leaking of a confidential state document and the garnering of event tickets for the disadvantaged, the latter two albeit for higher purposes -- and incidents done to him, from the abuse he endured for supporting gay rights to the disappointment of the Kroc center denial. Make that a roller coaster dangling from bungee cords.

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Yet Bergson's wild ride may come to a safe and sound stop after all, with the simultaneous news Monday that Gov. Tim Pawlenty had signed legislation allowing the city of Duluth to create an irrevocable trust through the State Board of Investment to tackle the retiree benefit obligation. The trust will produce higher rates of return than other city funds and could "reduce the retiree health care liability by a third," Bergson said. "It is a very important piece in the puzzle toward solving this problem."

Other pieces already in place include gas, sewer and water rate increases to the tune of about $2.3 million a year, the elimination of guaranteed retirement benefits for future city hires, increases in financial contributions of current employees and retirees, and contract settlements, including concessions, with three of the city's five unions.

Three of five isn't enough, and in March, the police union rejected a tentative contract. Negotiations with the city's largest union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, likewise remain unresolved.

But with Bergson no longer a candidate for mayor, then perhaps the negotiators across the table can relate to him as a former (or future?) cop and public servant who will soon be dealing with the same issues as their rank-and-file members.

The crisis isn't solved and it's certainly long past the Dec. 31, 2006, deadline set by the City Council-appointed Retiree Benefits Task Force. But with the approval of the irrevocable trust, there is light at the end of the roller coaster's tunnel.

Maybe even a legacy.

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