By BRETT WILKISON and SAM SCOTT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to overhaul public pensions rippled through the North Bay on Thursday, drawing mixed reaction from public employees, labor leaders, elected officials and fiscal watchdogs.
Aspects of his 12-point proposal could impact nearly all of Sonoma County’s approximately 25,000 state, city, school and county workers. But the most sweeping changes would apply to future hires only.
Among the major proposals, Brown wants all employees to share equally with their employers in the cost of pension contributions. He also calls for increasing the retirement age for future hires.
Details of the plan were just beginning to filter to local workers Thursday, but several said they were frustrated by what they said were more attempts to balance the state’s books on the backs of public employees.
“I’m just disappointed,” said Ryan Green, 31, a clerk for the state Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board. He said state workers have endured unpaid furloughs and increased personal contributions to their pensions and benefits.
“I can see why we’re easy targets, but there are a lot of hard-working people working for the state,” Green said.
Brown’s plan would shift future employees from a traditional pension — where taxpayers bear the burden of payment regardless of fund losses — to a hybrid plan with 401(k)-type accounts similar to those in the private sector.
Brown’s proposals would not alter pension obligations due current public employees. But Dave Bissell, 52, who makes about $57,000 a year as a chief building engineer for the state Department of General Services, said he’s worried tinkering with approved benefits now may lead to reductions for retirees later.
“It’s a totally slippery slope,” he said.
Brown’s plan comes as local governments wrestle with their own costly retirement systems. In Sonoma County, a report is due out next week on ways to decrease pension costs, which have soared more than 300 percent during the past decade.
David Rabbitt, one of two supervisors leading the overhaul effort in Sonoma County, said the county’s plan has similarities to Brown’s, which he called a “great start.”
“How it ends up is still up in the air,” he said.
Labor leaders were split in their views. One lashed out at the proposal, saying it was the wrong way to go about changes that she said were better addressed at the negotiating table.
“Workers have done what has been asked of them,” said Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council. “It just seems unfair to impose additional rollbacks on workers without bargaining.”
Other labor leaders said the plan hits many of the same points that until now have been addressed separately either in previous state legislative efforts or in talks with local governments.
“We consider the governor’s proposal a starting point to a statewide conversation (on pension overhaul) as opposed to one on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis,” said Bill Steck, program director with Service Employees’ International Union Local 1021, Sonoma County’s largest public sector union.
According to a state lawmaker and a labor leader, most of the proposal will be subject to legislative action, making any final outcome dependent on deal-making in Sacramento. Ballot measures aimed at pension overhaul could increase political pressure on lawmakers.
Democratic Assemblyman Michael Allen said Thursday he sees the proposal as part of his work on a joint legislative committee studying public pensions. He said Brown’s proposal was a “comprehensive approach” to an issue that can’t be dealt with in “piecemeal fashion.”
Allen, a former public labor leader, called most of the proposals “workable,” but said he was troubled by the governor’s bid to raise the retirement age for future hires to 67, that of Social Security.
“At what point do we ask people to keep on working?” he said.
One local advocate of pension change questioned how much of Brown’s plan could ultimately be implemented given legal constraints and opposition from organized labor. He suggested it could just be a way to defuse a hot-button political issue that faces little chance of success.
“What if he’s proposing something that he absolutely knows will never pass?” said Bob Andrews, the former owner of a benefits consulting firm who served on the city of Santa Rosa’s Pension Reform Task Force.