By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Ninety-eight retirees in the Sonoma County pension system get more than $100,000 in annual pension payments, including three who receive more than $200,000, according to records released Wednesday by the retirement association.
The top pensioner is Rod Dole, the recently retired county auditor-controller-treasurer-tax collector. He gets $254,625 annually, or more than $21,000 per month. Dole’s 35 years with the county included 26 years as the chief financial officer.
Second is retired Sheriff Bill Cogbill, who receives $239,311, or nearly $20,000 per month. Cogbill served two terms in elected office and worked for the county for more than 32 years.
Other retirees in the top five are former county administrator Mike Chrystal, who receives $209,862 annually; former county clerk Eeve Lewis, $182,102; and former county public works director David Knight, $182,024.
The pension figures, which were made public for the first time as a result of a lawsuit filed by The Press Democrat, show what some say are the ballooning payments of a system that taxpayers are propping up at the expense of other public services.
“The public should be concerned. This level of benefits is unsustainable,” said Bob Andrews, the former owner of a benefits consulting firm who this year served on the city of Santa Rosa’s Pension Reform Task Force.
Stock market losses plus salary and benefit increases in the past decade have forced the county, like many other local and state governments, to pour millions more into its retirement fund to cover pension obligations. Unfunded obligations now total $249 million, according to actuarial reports prepared for the county retirement association.
The higher contributions by taxpayers include the county’s sale last year of about $290 million in bonds, a move that doubled the county’s pension debt.
The newly released records, while showing that the majority of county retirees earn pensions of $30,000 or less, are likely to add still more fuel to the fire.
“It’s no secret that we have to modify the way in which we look at our retirement system,” said Efren Carrillo, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. He cautioned that the records were just a “snapshot” of the county’s retirement costs.
But he added: “I would agree that what we have now is not sustainable long-term.”
The board of the Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association reversed years of past practice by releasing the list of payments made to 3,916 retired county and special-district workers and their beneficiaries. The disclosure was ordered by a Sonoma County judge and upheld by a state appellate court after The Press Democrat sued last year for access to the records.
The data covers monthly pension payments through August.
It shows some of the top public retirees represented by SCERA make more in retirement than they did while working.
That list includes both Dole and Cogbill, whose 2010 county earnings, including salary, car and cash allowances, totalled $221,093 and $231,366, respectively. It also includes Chrystal, a 31-year county employee who retired in 2004 with a salary of about $180,000.
Dole, 59, and Cogbill, 58, did not return calls for comment Wednesday. Chrystal, 69, who along with Dole served on the county retirement board, declined to comment.
The records also show a wide disparity among what retirees earn. The top pension was more than 11 times the median annual pension, which is $22,552, and nearly nine times the average of $29,761.
About 64 percent of the retirees earn below the average pension, while about 36 percent earn more. The lowest annual payment was about $124 annually.
The records include county workers who have worked more than 30 years down to those who have worked five years, the minimum term to be eligible for retirement benefits.
The records appear to confirm a long-suspected trend: that career employees who’ve retired since benefit formulas were enhanced beginning seven years ago are helping fuel a rapid escalation in pension-system financial burdens. The average pension for retirees in 2009, according to SCERA, was $42,000, 69 percent more than the average for all retirees in the system.
Those at the top of county government are taking home the highest payments, receiving far more than their equally tenured predecessors. For example, Cogbill’s annual pension is nearly 70 percent larger than the pension earned by his predecessor, former Sheriff Jim Piccinini, who served five years in office and 27 years total with the county before retiring in 2003.
Of the top 10 county pensioners, all are elected or appointed department heads, with the exception of Linda Suvoy, the former assistant sheriff and Larry Scoufos, the former assistant district attorney.
The total payout to the 98 retirees who receive pensions of $100,000 or more is about $12.6 million. That means 2.5 percent of the retirees are collecting 10.8 percent of the county’s total annual pension payments of $116.5 million.
A more in-depth analysis was not immediately possible because the initial release of records did not include retirement dates, job titles, years of service or employer, information necessary to accurately evaluate trends in pension payouts. Courts in other jurisdictions have determined this to be public information and other county pension boards have released it.
“These were not items identified by the court to be withheld, and I will seek the court’s assistance to obtain this information if necessary,” said Tom Burke, attorney for The Press Democrat in the suit.
In a follow-up response late Wednesday, SCERA Administrator Gary Bei provided the dates of retirement for former employees. He referred the newspaper to decades of association monthly meeting agendas and minutes to determine employer information for each retiree.
Carol Bauer, leader of a group of former county workers who receive benefits from SCERA, blasted the disclosure of individual pension records Wednesday as a violation of privacy.
Publishing the pension figures “sets retirees up as a target,” said Bauer, president of the Sonoma County Association of Retired Employees.
She was also skeptical that it would help accurately frame or hasten any overhaul of the pension system.
“Pension reform is not going to be driven by putting those names in the newspaper,” she said. “Pension reform is going to be driven by negotiations with employee groups.”
Sonoma County’s retirement spending rose more than 250 percent over the past decade. Including additional payments on county pension debt, that 10-year rise is almost 340 percent.
By another measure, the contribution rate the county pays into its retirement system as a percentage of payroll tripled from 2000 to 2010, to 30 percent, or about $92 million including pension debt.
That means for every dollar the county pays toward salaries, it now pays an additional 30 cents into its retirement system and toward pension debt to support the current level of benefits.
Supervisors are set to return to the issue in early November. A report due then is expected to offer suggestions on ways to overhaul the retirement system and reduce county costs. Those proposals will feed into contract negotiations next year, a county spokesman said.
Click here to search a database of Sonoma County pension payments.