By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Healdsburg soon could find itself in an unusual situation with a majority of the City Council made up of former city employees.
The Healdsburg election last week produced a first for Sonoma County and an apparent rarity for California’s 480 other cities.
Voters elected a retired police chief and a retired fire captain, both of whom are set to serve on a council with a previously elected former police sergeant.
If the unofficial election results stand, three out of five members of the council will be ex-staffers, all drawing pensions, at a time when public workers’ compensation and retirement packages are coming under increased scrutiny.
Leading up to the election, the candidates were aware some voters questioned the prospect of that many retired police and fire employees on the City Council.
“I did hear it — three former public safety employees on the council and how we would create a voting bloc. I don’t see that happening,” said Susan Jones, who retired as Healdsburg’s police chief last summer, before running for council and getting elected Nov. 2.
The election results are still preliminary and it won’t be known for perhaps several weeks whether retired Healdsburg Fire Capt. Steve Babb’s close, 61-vote margin holds up after all the mail-in ballots are counted.
But Babb expressed confidence that he will beat Loretta Petersen Strong, a financial adviser, who trails him.
If so, Babb and Jones will join former police Sgt. Gary Plass, who has been on the council since 2004, the same year he retired from a 28-year career with Healdsburg police.
Several other city councils in the county have former officers or firefighters as members, or about to be sworn in, including in Cloverdale, Petaluma and Cotati. But none have three serving at once.
Plass said there is a “natural progression” for former police officers who choose to run for City Council.
“There’s a familiarity with the community. Most of the time we have a real connection with the community,” said Plass, who grew up in Healdsburg and raised his children there.
He said former supervisors, such as himself, Jones and Babb, are familiar with the budgets and such issues as retirement benefits, furloughs and salaries.
But he acknowledged some skeptics may see it as a case of the foxes guarding the hen house.
Plass acknowledged the concern: “Fear we wouldn’t be as receptive to changing retirement systems and having employees pay more of their share of costs.”
Plass, Jones and Babb have benefited from a controversial state law passed a decade ago that allows public safety employees to retire at age 50 and collect 3 percent of their salary for each year served, to a maximum of 30 years.
In Jones’ case, who retired at age 53, she is collecting 90 percent of her $149,605 salary, or about $135,000 annually.
Plass, 57, said he gets $78,000 a year.
“It’s not a lot of money. But I’m not complaining,” he said, adding it enables him to devote himself to the City Council, which he said consumes more time than the two scheduled monthly meetings.
Once the head of the police union and its chief negotiator, Plass said his job is different now as a councilman whose priority is a balanced budget.
Jones said she has demonstrated her ability to make painful cuts in the Police Department, eliminating jobs or ordering layoffs.
As far as her pension, she said she never anticipated staying on the job for as long as she did — 31 years — and said most officers don’t last that long.
“Physically and emotionally, it takes its toll,” Jones said, acknowledging she has job-related ailments, including bad knees, a bad back and “an irritable heart that takes off and races on its own.”
Babb, 56, worked at Hewlett-Packard for 24 years in sheet metal and electric plating before being hired by the Fire Department 14 years ago. He retired this year and said he gets a $40,000 pension from the state’s retirement system for public workers.
“I got approximately 45 percent of my wages in retirement and no medical whatsoever,” he said.
But the state employee system and other public workers’ pensions around the country have come under scrutiny from taxpayers with lesser retirement benefits who have to foot the bill.
Pension officials attribute increased costs to a number of things in addition to more generous retirement packages. In particular, large stock market losses drained the value from local and state retirement portfolios, which since have required backfilling by taxpayers.
Other factors include a sustained period of salary increases and retirees living longer.
In Healdsburg, virtually all of the city’s $6 million general fund goes to pay for police and fire services.
A predicted deficit of $1.2 million was covered earlier this year with a one-time transfer from another fund and reserves. But the city, struggling with declining tax revenues and increases in medical and pension costs for employees, is projected to deplete its reserves in several more years.
Babb said that during the campaign he had a city employee reluctant to vote for him who told him, “You’re from the Fire Department, you’re not going to do anything against fire. And Susan will only support police.”
“He wanted someone grounded in Healdsburg — part of the city, not a part of fire and police,” Babb said.
But Babb, who has lived in Healdsburg for 21 years, said he believes he changed the voter’s opinion by sharing with him his background of community work and longtime ties to Healdsburg.
All the candidates in the council race this year supported the idea of a two-tiered pension system in which newly hired employees might have to wait longer to retire or perhaps pay more of their salaries into the system.
But Jones said it is something that should be done simultaneously statewide to avoid police departments with less generous retirement benefits becoming a “training ground” for younger recruits who move on.
The most recent report from the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, which was issued almost a year ago, showed Healdsburg’s contributions toward employee pensions was projected to increase from about $2.5 million in 2009-2010 to $2.7 million in 2010-2011.
And the city’s total employee payroll in that same period was anticipated to go from $11.5 million to $12.6 million.
But a city finance official cautioned those were projections that did not take into account some employee salary freezes that were enacted last year as well as the actual performance rate of investment funds.
And City Manager Marjie Pettus said recently approved labor contracts exacted some concessions from employees. She said police officers agreed to contribute more toward their pensions, equaling 7 percent of their pay.
And other employee groups went from paying 6 percent of their salary toward pension to 8 percent.
She said wage and benefit concessions recently agreed to by Healdsburg’s 109 employees represent almost $1.2 million total savings over the next several years of the contracts.
Still, Babb said, employees are likely to be asked to give up more in the future.
“They will be asked to pay into pension more and health (insurance) down the road — two big costs that keep going up,” he said.
The council’s other two members are Jim Wood, a dentist, who handily won re-election, and Tom Chambers, chief operating officer for Codding Steel Frame Solutions.