Here’s one of the main problems with Sonoma County’s soaring pensions. Just about all of the decision-makers benefit from the same pensions they set for the union employees and others. All five members of the Board of Supervisors are on the same retirement plan. Eight of the ten members of the Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association (SCERA) are former or current county employees. So who represents the public’s interests?
Remember, it’s the taxpayers who are primarily on the hook to make up the difference when pension investments collapse. The result is more taxpayer funds are invested in retirement benefits and more services are cut.
Here’s an editorial we wrote in today’s Press Democrat calling on the Board of Supervisors to create an independent committee, made up of members of the public who do not benefit from the pension system, to evaluate the current pension system and make recommendations on how it needs to be changed.
- Paul Gullixson
PD Editorial: Pensions are an insider’s game to play
So how did we get here? How did we end up in a place where Sonoma County is mired in budget shortfalls and debt while some of its top employees are walking out the door with pensions better than what’s given the president of the United States?
We’re still trying to figure this out ourselves. The reasons are numerous and complex — and the county has not been forthcoming with all the information we need to fully examine this issue.
Suffice it to say, it’s taken years to get to where we are, saddled with overly generous retirement packages and Byzantine rules that, if worked correctly, allow employees to pad their earnings to end up with pensions equal to 120 percent or more of their final salaries.
It has been an insiders’ game, and before now, the public really didn’t know what the rules were, let alone who the winners are. But with the court-ordered release of precise pension information last week, the numbers are now on the table. And, as we’ve noted, they’re staggering. More than 100 retirees receive in excess of $100,000, including 29 who receive more than $140,000 a year.
Not only are the rules obscure, those who make the rules all have skin in the game. Unlike those on a city council who, by and large, work on a voluntary basis, the five members of the Board of Supervisors are full-time employees who stand to benefit from the same retirement perks as other employees.
Meanwhile, of the 10 trustees of the Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement System, eight are current or former county employees. One, retired County Administrator Mike Chrystal, takes home the third highest of all pensions in the county — $209,862 a year. (By comparison, retired U.S. presidents receive a pension of $196,700 a year.)
This leaves us asking, who’s representing the public in all of this? After all, when pension investments tank, as they have in recent years, it’s the taxpayers who primarily are on the hook to ensure retirees get the benefits they were promised. For the record, we don’t believe, and there’s no evidence to suggest, that any elected official or department head has done anything nefarious. Sonoma County has benefited from the devoted service of many outstanding public employees, including those listed among the top pensioners.
At the same time, we believe it’s time the Board of Supervisors create a citizens’ committee composed entirely, or at least predominantly, of people who do not benefit directly from the retirement system. This panel should look at the county’s retirement system, not just in the context of how it compares to other counties but how it stands on its own merits and whether it is sustainable.
This panel also should do an independent analysis of the decision to float $290 million more in pension bonds last year, a move that essentially allowed the county to put its unfunded pension liability on a credit card. Was it a good risk? Given the recent plunge in the stock market and the fact those bonds need to average a return of 8percent a year for the next 20 years, we have our doubts.
But we believe it’s time that supervisors hear more from the public on this issue. Because odds are, if they don’t listen now, they’ll hear it later at the ballot box.