WatchSonoma Watch

Pushing pensions higher


Pensions for career Sonoma County government workers have more than doubled in the past decade, led by sheriff’s deputies and other public safety workers who by 2011 were retiring with an average of more than $94,000 a year.

Employees outside the ranks of public safety who retired in 2011 with 20 or more years averaged nearly $68,000 — 107 percent more than what co-workers who retired in 2002 get on average, county retirement records show.

The dramatic jump — four times greater than the rise in the cost of living — has affected at least 758 career employees who have retired under enhanced pension benefits approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2002 and rolled out for public safety workers in 2003. Higher benefits approved for other workers began in 2004.

Both deals granted a higher percentage of compensation for every year worked and lowered the retirement age, to 50 for public safety workers and 60 for all other workers.

Outrage over public pensions is sweeping through California and the nation. Many workers in the private sector, who’ve seen their employers shed defined-benefit pension plans in favor of 401(k)-type plans, are demanding that government do the same.

One former county sheriff who gets substantially less in retirement than his successors called the higher county pension amounts “obscene.”

“Not only the pension piece, but the salaries,” said Mark Ihde, a two-term sheriff who retired in 1997 with a pension that is now little more than a quarter of the retirement earned by the latest retiring sheriff.

The scrutiny comes in an era of austerity for government, with less money available for roads, parks, libraries, health and welfare programs and a range of other services. Higher retirement benefits were granted years ago, in part to attract and retain workers, but also as a strategy intended to slow the rising pace of salaries. Now those deferred costs are coming due.

The higher pensions promised to the current workforce are a key factor, along with investment losses, in the county retirement system’s long-term shortfall, now set at $353 million. The system’s investment portfolio is valued at $1.8 billion.

Taxpayer costs for county pensions, including payments on bond debt, meanwhile, have risen 401 percent in the past 12 years, to $87.2 million a year.

The employees’ share of pension costs rose 152 percent, to $37.3 million, in the 10-year period ending in 2010, the latest year for which those figures are available.

Newly disclosed county retirement data show career workers account for a majority of the benefits paid by the system. And the average pension for career workers is continuing to rise rapidly, putting further pressure on strained public services.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” said Valerie Brown, the only current Board of Supervisors member who was serving when the board unanimously approved the higher benefits.

After Sonoma County pension officials rejected requests to release individual records that could shed light on retirement costs, The Press Democrat in 2010 sued the Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association to gain access to those records. A local judge and an appellate court panel subsequently ordered the data to be made public.

The first batch of records disclosed last year showed that 98 individuals in the system draw annual benefits of $100,000 or more, including three county officials who now get pensions topping $200,000.

A Press Democrat analysis using more detailed retirement data received this year shows how those higher benefits for career workers are driving up pension costs.

(Search a database of Sonoma County pensions)

The newly obtained records cover 3,992 county retirees, special district workers and their beneficiaries. The additional information shows the effect in the past decade that more generous pension formulas, years of service, classification as a public safety or “general” employee, salary hikes and the layering of premium pay and perks into pensions have had on retirement benefits.

The records show:

The system’s 1,293 career retirees going back to 1969 — those with 20 or more years of employment — account for 32 percent of the members but 57 percent of the benefits paid out annually. Their $52,800 average pension is 76 percent higher than the overall average of $30,000.

Pension officials and labor representatives often cite the lower figure to counter critics protesting costly pensions. But the lower figure includes those who worked as few as five years and those who left the county workforce as far back as 1969.

The average benefit for the 789 career workers who retired from 2002 through 2011 is $64,600, up from $34,900 in the previous decade.

Workers who’ve retired since 2000 with 20 or more years of service are getting on average 75 percent of their highest year’s compensation. The average for all workers retiring since 2000 is 50 percent of their highest year’s pay.

Among the 152 career public safety workers who retired from 2002 through 2011, the average pension is $80,200, up from $47,300 in the previous decade.

Among the 637 career general workers who retired from 2002 to 2011, the average pension is $60,900, up from $31,700 in the previous decade.

101 of the 2,247 workers — 4.5 percent — who’ve retired since 2000 get paid more in retirement than they received in base salary and other ongoing supplemental pay and cash benefits while on the job. The individuals range from the system’s top earners to retirees getting pensions of $47,000. The average pension for the group is about $99,000. All have more than 30 years of service.

New era

A 1997 California Supreme Court decision began the acceleration in public pensions by vastly expanding the range of pensionable pay for government workers. The state and local governments followed soon after with a wave of decisions that sharply increased pension formulas, thus granting enhanced retirement benefits.

The result in Sonoma County has been pensions for recent career workers that can be shockingly higher than those received by career workers who retired before the upgrades.

The disparity cuts across the county workforce. A deputy district attorney who left in 2004 with 25 years, for example, gets a $95,000 pension — 60 percent higher than one received by a colleague who retired with almost 29 years on the job in 2001.

Among two engineering technicians, each with more than 37 years of service, the employee who retired in 2001 gets $46,000 a year while the one who stepped down in 2009 gets $82,000, records show.

Retired Sheriff’s Capt. Erne Ballinger left in 2000 after nearly 33 years of service with a retirement of $84,000. Four years later, a captain with two fewer years of service retired with a $120,000 annual pension.

“That is a rather substantial difference,” Ballinger said. “The fellows living with lesser amounts probably don’t feel completely happy.”

Salary hikes in intervening years and differences in pay among individuals in the same job category contribute to the disparity. The average county salary increased 60 percent from 2001 to 2010, retirement system records show. By comparison, the Consumer Price Index rose 23 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau’s data also shows that mean wages for all workers in Santa Rosa rose 32 percent during that time while management wages rose 38 percent.

Steep rise

Enhanced pension benefits are likely the dominant factor in the disparity, retirement experts say.

The richer benefit formulas tend to amplify the pensions of management employees more than rank-and-file because of management’s higher overall pay.

The result is sometimes startling differences between pensions of top officials who retired on opposite sides of the benefit change.

Bob Beach left as general manager of the county Water Agency in 1994 with 17 years of service. He gets a pension of just over $45,000, including cost-of-living adjustments. His successor, Randy Poole, who also was the agency’s chief engineer, retired in 2010 with 19 years of service. He gets a pension of nearly $128,000.

Among the county’s retired sheriffs, the upward march in pensions is even more stark.

Ihde retired in 1997 with nearly 25 years of service. He gets a pension including adjustments of $69,000. His successor, Jim Piccinini, retired in 2003 — the first year of the benefit bump for public safety — with just over 35 years of total service. He gets a pension of nearly $141,000. His successor, Bill Cogbill, retired at the start of last year with 33 years of service. His pension is $239,311, the second-highest in the system.

The top benefit is earned by Rod Dole, the former auditor-controller-treasurer-tax collector, who also retired last year. He gets $254,625 — 74 percent more than the highest pension earned by a retiree who left before benefits were increased.

Pension debate

The higher pensions have sparked outrage among taxpayers protesting the drain on public coffers, and are defended by employees and labor leaders who say the numbers don’t tell the whole picture.

“I don’t feel guilty. I’ve done my fair share,” said Roger Rude, who retired as a sheriff’s lieutenant in 2006 with nearly 29 years of service with the county and a pension of almost $102,000.

He benefited from the enhanced formula that gives public safety workers the ability to retire at age 50 with 3 percent of their pay for every year worked — effectively 90 percent of their highest year’s compensation based on a 30-year career. The higher benefit became standard when the state and local governments improved benefits more than a decade ago.

The corresponding Sonoma County benefit for general workers allows retirement at age 60 with 3 percent of their highest year’s pay for every year worked. That benefit is higher than in most government workforces in California.

Among both groups, careers longer than 30 years and cash-outs of accrued vacation, holiday, compensatory and sick time, along with other bonuses, can boost pension amounts over 100 percent.

The cashouts are a larger factor among safety workers, boosting pensions by an average of 6 percent, according to retirement officials.

Rude, the retired sheriff’s lieutenant, defended the better retirement now received by public safety workers.

“Those who I have worked with put their lives on the line, numerous times … and their health,” he said. “I don’t in any way feel like what we earned over the course of our career is inappropriate. We negotiated in good-faith terms.”

But critics say those negotiations smacked of self-interest and lacked any serious consideration for how the higher benefits might affect public finances in the long term.

They have hit on a key perk — the higher benefit formulas were applied retroactively to all current workers at the time, meaning career employees could retire in year one of the higher benefit after decades paying for a lower pension. More than 100 career employees did exactly that.

A cost-sharing deal with workers was meant to help pay for the better benefit. It boosted employees’ contributions by 3 percent. About 12 percent of county workers’ paychecks go toward pensions, one of the highest rates among their government colleagues.

Surplus investment income was to kick in the rest needed to cover the richer benefits. But that was wiped out first by the dot-com bust in 2000 and then by the 2008 stock market free-fall, which erased a third of invested pension fund assets. Two rounds of county borrowing to prop up the fund with a total of $520 million in pension bonds have left taxpayers holding the bag, critics say.

“It’s the unions influencing elected leaders. And it’s management using rank-and-file to get what they want. And taxpayers are being carved out of the loop,” said Marcia Fritz, a pension overhaul advocate who leads the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility.

Labor’s defense

Labor leaders say public workers are being made scapegoats for economic woes caused by Wall Street. They also say the six-digit pensions of managers have skewed overall averages.

The average pension for the largest group of those represented workers, Local 1021 of the Service Employees International Union, is $24,000, said Lathe Gill, the union’s Santa Rosa-based area director. The retirement records obtained by The Press Democrat do not contain information about union membership. Of the 758 career employees who retired in past decade under the enhanced benefits, only 40 retirees are getting less than $30,000, records show.

County workers also pay into and get Social Security benefits.

Gill and other labor leaders say they hear little grumbling about the differences in retirement among generations of workers — including future county employees who face the likelihood of lower benefits because of present costs.

A more common complaint concerns a 2008 reduction in county medical benefits, which retirees are fighting in court. That change actually boosted pensionable pay for current workers because it involves a monthly $600 cash allowance to employees.

Gill defended the disparity in pensions resulting from the formulas adopted in the past decade. “It isn’t fair,” he said, “but lots of things in life aren’t fair. People wanted to share in the benefits of prosperity. Times were roaring ahead. Do I look back and think it was a mistake? I don’t know that I do.”

But Ihde, the retired sheriff, says county leaders erred in their decision to improve benefits.

“When I was there, I was saying ‘We can’t afford this,’ ” he said. “I do believe public safety employees deserve an enhanced pension, but not at this level.”

Wrangling over changes

The debate over public sector pensions and the dilemma of what do about soaring retirement costs is not unique to Sonoma County.

Hundreds of local governments that granted higher benefits a decade ago are staggering as pensions take up a greater share of payroll and put a tighter squeeze on staffing for current public services.

For Sonoma County, the $87.2 million going this fiscal year to pension costs, including bond payments, represents 18.5 percent of total salary and benefit expenses. That share is up from over 6 percent of total payroll a decade ago.

The costs have hit as revenue has dried up. Property tax — the county’s main source of discretionary money — has been at a historic low, while sales tax has been flat and state and federal funding has shrunk.

“It’s less doomsday than today. It’s real. The revenue just isn’t there,” said Harvey Leiderman, a San Francisco attorney who advises the state’s largest retirement funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS, as well as a number of local government pension systems.

Advocates pushing for pension system overhaul say changes are needed to lower investment risk and reduce benefit costs.

“This is not a partisan issue. It’s a math issue. And those of us who understand math know that it doesn’t add up,” said Bill Pollacek, a retired treasurer-tax collector for Contra Costa County who has been active on pension overhaul campaigns. “Unfortunately, it’s going to become an intergenerational debt.”

Some critics have pushed for cuts that would affect current workers, seen as the quickest way to bring down costs. There are about 3,400 employees in Sonoma County government, all of whom are in line for the higher retirement benefit provided they work five years.

Yet moves affecting promises to existing workers and others proposed elsewhere that would affect retirees are almost certain to run into legal challenges.

Changes the county is pursuing in contract talks and in revisions to state law include, for all employees, capping benefits and scaling back pension spiking created through extra pay and perks, and for future workers, reducing benefits and raising the retirement age. A move to add four more Board of Supervisors’ appointees to the pension system board, county leaders say, would increase public oversight of the system. Supervisors currently appoint four of the panel’s nine voting members.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, who serves on the pension board, also has pushed retirement officials to consider lowering the system’s market risk, a move that could jack up taxpayer contributions in the short-term but could prove more effective in controlling underfunding.

Income from the system’s $1.8 billion investment portfolio was flat in 2011, essentially adding $140 million to the long-range unfunded liability. The 20-year returns to the system are now at 6.8 percent a year, significantly less than the assumed return rate of 7.75 percent.

“There is a structural problem with the system going forward,” Rabbitt said three weeks ago, following another forecast of increased county pension costs well into the future.

Concessions, concerns

Labor leaders have conceded some changes may be warranted. Returning to a retirement age of 55 for safety workers is one, a local representative said.

But employee representatives remain concerned about tinkering with guaranteed pensions, a bedrock benefit of government work. The 401(k)-type defined contribution plans preferred by private-sector employers offer less retirement security, labor representatives say, and often fare worse in market downturns.

“These issues all go to questions of what people want to pay for” in government, said Chris Platten, a San Jose attorney who represents public-sector labor groups. “Over time, these pension systems will right themselves. Are we still going to have a pig-in-a-python problem in the short-term? The answer is yes, and the reason is the fiscal disintegration of Wall Street.”

Brown, the veteran county supervisor and former state legislator who is retiring at the end of this year, also assigns blame to the nation’s bankers.

She has remained the one board member most skeptical of calls for retirement system changes. But the picture of sharply rising pensions among career workers gave her pause in an interview last week.

“It can’t be sustained,” she said.

Decisions she helped make 10 years ago were flawed by rosy assumptions of investment returns that did not materialize.

“I certainly have discomfort about it now,” she said.

Past members of the Board of Supervisors who also took part in those votes — Tim Smith, Mike Reilly, Paul Kelley and Mike Kerns — have not returned previous calls for comment. All but Kelley, who has not filed for retirement benefits, receive pensions under the enhanced formula.

Brown, in turn, offered her assessment of the future, saying government has gone through “a huge come-to-Jesus moment.”

“The cost of some services can’t be supported; people aren’t going to get what they expect to have paid for. Pensions are certainly a part of that.”

“We’re stuck with a reassessment that’s going to be painful,” she said.

(News Researcher Teresa Meikle compiled and analyzed retirement records for 3,992 retired workers and beneficiaries for this report. Her work also serves as the basis for the graphs presented with the report. Staff Writer Randi Rossmann contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.)

35 Responses to “Pushing pensions higher”

  1. Marcus Welby, MD says:

    Curious as to Dr. Gunderson’s specialty, I checked to see what sort of medicine he is licensed to practice in the State of California. The answer, since, 2007, is “None.” Odd that he would call himself a doctor.

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  2. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Big Jim-NO they are not beholding to unions. Here’s some education for you and others. Union MEMBERs only hope for a voice on the BOS who will listen to their membership and consider the employees’ health and welfare when decisions are made. Union MEMBERS WHO ARE ON THE POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEE look for the candidates who are most likely to support the employees they are responsible for. SOMEONE needs to speak for them.
    The unions do not have the unlimited funds that most of the public thinks they have and can only donate what is allowed by law. Union members contribute to a political action fund voluntarily as union dues can’t be used for political activity as most of the public think. Union members make the candidate choices DEMOCRATICALLY. Anyone who contributes can participate in this process. Even some union members don’t know this and whine about how their “DUES” are used politically without their choice and they are WRONG. They are welcome to donate and participate. Different area unions members come together and work together in this process as well-private and public.

    Furthermore, union MEMBERS are the contract negotiators with support and guidance from the union. The union does not do the negotiating. THE MEMBERS ARE THE UNION.

    No candidate is beholding to the union. Afterall, they can get more money from corporate donors than unions now that we have Citizen’s United thanks to the “unbiased” Supreme Court ruling against the people of America. The unions’ members are the only voices left for all middleclass workers and their families.

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  3. GAJ says:

    And things are fubarred on a national level as well:

    “The longer-term picture is even scarier: If nothing is done, by 2024 — according to a Credit Suisse estimate — 100% of U.S. tax revenues will go to entitlement spending and interest payments on the federal debt. That’s it. Nothing left for tanks, jets, food stamps and SEC regulators. Nada.”


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  4. Big Jim says:

    The fundamental problem with the system is conflict of interests – Supervisors and City councellors benefit personally from pushing pensions higher, and they are beholdant to public employee unions for their election. No amount of studying th eissue, or foisting cutbacks on the lower levels of government, or the young new employees will solve the problem until the underlying conflicts of interest are removed. All pensions should be defined contribution only, so that we pay now for what we recieve, not the next generation, and next limit the power of public employee unions – abn colletive barganing for pay and pensions. Who will stand up and save the american living standards for taxpayers?

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  5. upsetsonoman says:

    This is crazy.

    Explain to me why govt workers have to have pensions?
    Why can’t they have a 401K like most private workers and get matching WHILE they are employed. And once they retire they are on their own?

    And Valerie Brown – thanks for giving yourself a huge pension (and I am sure you are off to double dip in SMART pension program too)
    and in the same time frame she cut road funding to almost nothing and ignored it until recently…

    Stop the insanity. Get rid of pensions….

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  6. ALLIANCE says:

    Using the word ‘alliance’ to describe the accountable, measurable, relationship we are actively engaged in with this globalist NGO(ICLEI)would be a huge understatement.

    Here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition:

    The Constitution defines it as treason.

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  7. Jim Bennett says:

    Crash the old, usher in the new.
    The New World Order.
    What do they think ICLEI is about?
    A book club?
    Sharing recipes?
    The only recipe they’re sharing is the socially engineered art of oppression.

    A well meaning public official could connect the dots in 10 minutes or so.

    See ICLEI doesn’t want to remodel.
    They want to build a whole new structure.
    So first they have some demolition to do.

    So let go of the well meaning, good will,
    common sense thing.
    We’re in a take over.

    Article 1, Section 10 of the Constitution forbids them from engaging in an ‘Alliance’ with any groups that aren’t the US Government.
    The verbage and spirit of the Section no doubt to prevent…

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  8. Pensions are a bomb going off, we must have pension reform now, not next year or next decade.

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  9. Richard James Emory says:

    At the core of the public pension problem is the very large hand of the public unions. SEIU, the firefighters and police unions elect the city councils and boards of supervisors in California including yes, even little old Sonoma County.

    This faustian bargain has given us elected officials who are in effect owned by public unions and subject to their beck and call.

    How could anything else happen but an out of control public pension scheme that benefits the very members the unions allegedly represent.

    Limit public union power and you can solve the public union pension crisis. Without that control, the death spiril of union domination of elected officials will continue and the pension crisis will continue to grow.

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  10. Californian says:

    “S”, regarding your Kaiser plan that costs you around $1000 per month, what are your co pays for each visit and prescriptions? My family’s insurance costs slightly less monthly for the same amount of people. I have a several thousand dollar deductible per person to meet before the insurance pays for much though. That is a lot of visits out of pocket before any split. When the costs go up, they go up for me and not my employer. How does yours compare?

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  11. bear says:

    @Tom Lynch

    Liked you better 25 years ago when you were “MM.” Now you’re running for Assembly? On the backs of rank-and-file employees and retirees who tolerated your antics?

    Thanks a bunch.

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  12. Big Jim says:

    Don’t think bankruptcy will get the taxpayers out of this mess in our city and county. The legislators in Sacramento are busily making it virtually impossible for cities to go bankrupt, or to reduce liabilities even if they manage it. The union lackies in action protecting their money grab from the public.
    See Assembly Bill 1692

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  13. Tom Lynch says:

    Thanks to former Sheriff Mark Ihde for his candor and courage in stating that the present system is “obscene”. It’s obvious that those who criticize Mark Ihde do not know what sacrifices he has made for Sonoma County and are not worthy a response.

    Bottom line is for five years now Sonoma County’s pension porfolio has averaged a 1% return while incurring an unfunded liability of $1.5 Billion principle and interest that must be paid over the next 20 years. That is equal to the entire payroll of the last 5 years!

    In addition to the $1 principle/interest to each $1 of salary; Sonoma County also paid in almost 50% toward retirement benefits. $1.50 per $1.00 of salary compared to 7.65% Social Security/Medicare from the employers of most in the private sector fortunate to have a job.

    Twenty times the retirement benefit of the private sector? I do not think most of our public servants understand what’s going on here…there have been promises made that cannot be kept.

    Government is what we do together that we cannot do by ourselves. We cannot have a system where our public servants are compensated with salary and benefits for one years service paid over the next twenty to thirty years by the next generation of public servants and taxpayers. This is the bottom line…and I agree with those from the rank and file; that the ones at the top most responsible for this system, and getting the most of the unfunded benefit, need to lead the way through their own sacrifice in order to correct the problems.


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  14. Steveguy says:

    Mark these words — Valerie Brown will make hundreds of thousands a year, with lobbying money the biggest portion.

    Hey Occupy folks, get your protest 0on for the REAL local crooks !

    They are only ‘GREEN’ for the money and power.

    OCCUPY the Board of Stupes !!!!

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  15. Steveguy says:

    When do the pension costs exceed 200% of the budget? In 2016, or 2020 ?

    They never seem to count the future, because of the management $150 K plus pensions.

    We are doomed, by our own elected politicians, and we will re-elect the same ones.

    Oh my, they will use us until we lose them. Let’s get it over with and declae bankruptcy. NOW…

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  16. S says:

    @Tax Payer

    County Road Maintenance workers have not had a cost of living increase in seven years. The average salary is between $20 – $26 an hour. The lowest level of medical insurance (Kaiser, family of 3 or more) costs roughly $1,100 out of pocket monthly. Retirement is %3 at 60, without the opportunity to spike, and it is not free, we contribute as well. You say we have not sacrificed? Really? The problem is with the County’s top earners. Please look at this closely before lumping all public employees together.

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  17. bear says:

    @county worker

    You’ve got it entirely right.

    Where is the Grand Jury when you need them? In the pockets of elected officials?

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  18. Steve Humphrey says:

    @ JIM

    You sir are spot on in your assessments.

    Soon, probably very soon, we will all be dancing in the smoke. Sadly, that’s what it is going to take.

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  19. Chuck G says:

    The problem is at the top and let’s not forget the good for nothing officials who have allowed this nonsense to continue over the years just so they can stay in office(a wink of the eye) While many families have lost their homes and jobs, don’t forget the innocent children of the parents who have lost their security blanket so unfairly, and their futures in such jeopardy. I would say its time for a serious change and the next time you have an opportunity to vote, think twice of who you are voting for and what they actually bring to the table. Vote for someone who has your best interests in mind, not their phony bologna nonsense.

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  20. Canthisbe says:

    Re-posted from March 25, 2012 at 7:08 pm “Pretty much everything that can be said about public employee salaries, pensions and health insurance and fire and police salary and pensions and health insurance in particular has been said ten times on the PD boards, in the press and on the internet. The public employee salaries and benefits are mathematically unsustainable. It doesn’t matter whether the public employee unions negotiated those salaries and benefits in good faith, in good times or whether they bought every politician with bribes. The public employee managements and unions are not ready to really contribute to solving the problem. (Agreeing to lower pay for “new hires” is virtually meaningless.) They hope they’ll get their money before the system collapses. The politicians lack the will to solve the problem. They are not about to give up their salaries, per diemes and pensions either. And it appears that they are not willing to go against the public employees unions that fund their re-elections. At some point, the ponzi scheme will collapse. The entire budgets of cities are close to being used up to pay public employee benefits. If you eliminate the deficit spending, some cities are already spending more than 100% of their budgets on employee salaries and benefits already. (See Healdsburg.) Everyone seems determined to get as much as they can until the whole scheme collapses of its own excesses into a massive disaster of bankrupt or defunct cities and counties and the State.”

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  21. Lou Lambert says:

    And everyone wonders with cites, counties and the state is broke. It’s sickening to see this happen and the fact that organized labor is allowed to do this while grabbing as much as they can get away with from where the money is really needed. Screw everyone else, set yourself up, don’t answer to anyone under you, sort of reminds me of a selfish family situation.

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  22. Jim says:

    I’m not going to post another response about how pensions make no sense. My opinion doesn’t matter because the voters and taxpayers are ignorant, blind or both to the reality that taxes have to be raised to cover the endless waste and excessive spending by the criminals that they continue to elect.

    I must ask, in relation to the standard supporting post to these pension articles, what does it matter whether the annual pension figures referenced are for management or not? The FACT is that pensions at the state level are $500 billion+ unfunded. In Santa Rosa it is over $100 million. In Healdsburg it is about the same. Sonoma County, yep, another $100 million. Pensions, whether $5,000/year or $500,000/year, ARE NOT FUNDED.

    Promises were made by elected dopes merely to stay in power. They did and continue to kick the can down the road, never addressing the exponential growth of pensions that WILL NEVER be funded. The media keeps publishing articles about how there is no money to cover the current liabilities. Businesses and jobs, the source of the taxes to cover the government waste, are vanishing from CA. The house of cards will collapse. This isn’t political, it is mathematics.

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  23. Taxpayer says:

    As long as public safety and their families do not suffer, everything will be fine.Not. Housing and private sector wages are at 2000 levels, why are they not affected by this nightmare situation we are all in? Are they holier than thou? I don’t think so.

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  24. Grapevines says:

    Don’t go expecting the Board of Stupid-visors to go changing any of this either. This benefits them directly and they sure are not worried about the greater good when their pensions are what are at stake here.

    Start requiring 401K programs for them? That will happen when pigs learn how to fly.

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  25. Concerned County Worker says:

    I work for the County and I agree that something needs to be done. Focusing on the people already retired is not going to fix this problem. The focus needs to be shifted to what is the County going to do to fix this? One idea is to create a new tier and lower the retirement age. They could also stop the buybacks. Buybacks are a negotiated item and could be implemented quickly. They need to stop the bleeding now while working on a long term fix!

    The push by David Rabbitt to add more members to the Retirement Board means that the County would now control the Retirement Board making it no longer an independent Board and just another department the BOS can push around. The law is written the way it is so that county pensions can be protected.

    As for the retirees in the article complaining about their pensions…both Idhe and Ballinger retired on service connected disabilities which means that a major portion of their retirement benefit is tax-free. I don’t recall seeing that mentioned. Maybe they should be thankful for what they have and be quiet. The little old lady making 23K a year pays taxes on her entire benefit. Sorry, I’m not going to cry any tears for them.

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  26. county worker says:

    I am an almost 11 year employee with the county. I am a rank & file worker. I also have a relative who has retired with one of these outragious pensions. It is crazy I will never see this sort of money. My health care out of my pocket for my family is nearly 1200 a month. What’s up

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  27. Follower says:

    “Watch the birdie”

    We have a leak in the plumbing and everyone is so busy arguing about how to fix the leak that NOBODY is paying any attention to what CAUSED the leak in the 1st place!

    So we’ll cut some spending, ONLY places that hurt the tax payers most. Then they’ll be inspired to agree to higher taxes but only on the “rich” because they’re just evil people.

    Of course the “rich” will just say “oh shucks… I guess I don’t get to be that rich after all” and they’ll just absorb the higher taxes, downgrade their standard of living and would NEVER think of raising the cost of the products & services they provide or just moving their wealth someplace else.

    No, that’ll never happen!

    Meanwhile everyone will be pacified and business as usual can resume.

    Maybe we should take a look at what caused this problem in the 1st place, deal with that FIRST and then find a way to make good in the promises made to retirees with the comfort of knowing that once those debts are paid we won’t end up right back in the same boat.

    Ban Public Employee Unions.
    Return the occupation of “Civil Servant” back to what it once was, what it should be!

    Let the people with the talent and drive to DESERVE these levels of pay and benefits EARN them in the private sector were their talents will contribute to our economy rather than drain it.
    The others can work a dead end job with mediocre pay & benefits and the built in security of a Government job. Not a bad trade off if you don’t possess exceptional talent.

    Clearly the old “we have to pay better to get better people in Civil Service” rhetoric has run it’s course.
    I think we can put that one to rest now.

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  28. County Worker says:

    Don’t bother Bear, they don’t care about the twists. Ihde went out on a medical, %50% of his salary after a heart attack on duty. Line of duty and the math goes out the window, but the headline looks good.

    Will they give me my money back and let me fund my own retirement? No. Is that fair? My other investments are up 87% in the time the county was up 6%. Who’s in the wrong vehicle now? Yes, I bought on sale after the crash. They could have too. Nearly every gov’t agency took years of pension holidays when the market was up and didnt put a single dime into retirement, the employees made every payment.

    Should the retirements be capped? I think so. Should managers and dept heads be allowed to spike their pensions with 5% for a one year notice of retirement, 5% additional pay from defered comp and getting to add the cost of their county vehcile to their final years compensation (Who the freak voted for that? Any current supervisor candidates?)?? No, I don’t think they should, it stinks and makes everyone, even the lowest paid, look bad.

    However, I accept we public employees are considered evil, greedy, blood sucking scum by some of you. Ok, I have been called worse, by better.

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  29. S says:

    Here we go again. The PD does not cover the full story. They are lumping all County employees together. This leads readers to believe that all County workers are entitled to these over the top pensions. It is good to report how much the county’s top earners make in retirement, but be fair to us frontline County workers. We are in the midst of negotiating a new contract and articles like these don’t tell our side of the story. We make modest wages, pay extremely high medical costs., and earn a decent and fair pension. The public reads these articles and wants cuts across the board. The cuts need to be at the top.

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  30. Reality Check says:

    In keeping with current trends, the PD is doing the expected in highlighting the large pensions of mgmt retirees. It gets your attention, which is the news business these days, regrettably.

    Outrageous though they are, these 6-figure pensions are no more responsible for the underwater condition of the pension fund than any other employee. It’s the percentages that are offered, 2-3% per year, times years served, and the woefully inadequate funding that is the problem.

    Yes, the pensions are high. Worse, they are not funded! That is what threatens future govt services and passes an unfair burden to the next generation. Either taxpayers and/or employees need to contribute a lot more money to the pot, or the formulas need significant reform.

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  31. bear says:

    This is a crap article, showing how the “new P-D” emphasizes headlines over content.

    The pension figures cited are for the “priveleged few.” Guess what – they are either former elected officials, their appointed management who did what they were told, or our sainted public safety retirees.

    Can we have a little accurate reporting on how much these parasites are getting from PERS or other sources? If it’s all from Sonoma County, I will be first in line to correct their behavior.

    Point is, that the line employee – who do ALL the actual work for these persons – do NOT get these pensions.

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  32. brown act Jack says:

    Well, at least I stood up and complained about it when it happened.
    I don’t know what the problem is other than that the CC members failed arithmetic in Grade school
    You give the workers a almost guaranteed wage increase (COLA) every year of 2-3%, which means the salaries double ever 30 years and then you increase their retirement benefits by, wait, here it comes, 50%, and allow them to collect it for 10 years longer, (difference between retiring at 50 or 60) and think that collecting 8% of the income will generate enough to pay 30 years of retirement is nuts!

    OK, Solution suggested at last meeting by me, the undersigned Brown Act Jack.

    Switch back to 2% at 65. and offer instead a US Bond Saving Program, where the city provides, if the worker want it, a 10% of the salary, consisting of 5% by worker and 5% by city, for a 30 year 0% US Bond to be issued to the worker.

    This bond would come due 30 years in the future for full face value, but the worker could sell it at any time for present value.

    Now this would immediately cut the future costs of the retirement program as the retirement system would have no obligation to pay the retirement due as it would be already paid for by the system.

    And there would be no chance of the retirement system running out of money for the benefits, as may happen in the future if we continue the way we are going

    Or to put it into a simpler form.

    We switch part of the retirement payment to the US Treasury and pay a small amount in advance by the purchase of the 0 interest bonds,

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  33. Reality Check says:

    “’There is a structural problem with the system going forward,’ Rabbitt said . . ”

    “Labor leaders have conceded some changes may be warranted.”

    This might encouraging if accompanying it was a proposal for fundamental reform. But there isn’t, and much less chance one would be adopted if proposed.

    The 20-year investment return is substantially below the assumed rate in which the unfunded liability is calculated. Even worse is the last 10-year return rate, and can anyone confidently predict this will improve in the years ahead?

    Yet, the beat goes on. The iceberg looms and what shall we do? Oh, maybe tack one degree starboard or maybe slow down a knot or two. Hey man, what’s the rush? Let’s talk about plastic bags.

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  34. GAJ says:

    Excellent report PD.

    The increases are already stunning, however, we haven’t even come close to topping out yet.

    “Public Safety” should be changed to “Public Peril”!

    “Ihde retired in 1997 with nearly 25 years of service. He gets a pension including adjustments of $69,000. His successor, Jim Piccinini, retired in 2003 — the first year of the benefit bump for public safety — with just over 35 years of total service. He gets a pension of nearly $141,000. His successor, Bill Cogbill, retired at the start of last year with 33 years of service. His pension is $239,311, the second-highest in the system.”

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  35. Steveguy says:

    The unsustainable pension problem has been known for years, and has been pointed out for more than a decade. The facts were ignored, as was the fact that the housing bubble would burst. ( Did anyone REALLY think that that regular old tract home was worth $600,000, and a mini-mart worker could buy one ? )

    Dan Walters of the SacBee has been writing about this problem for years, as have many others.

    Sure, they have acted like they are doing something, yet pension spiking still exists even after years of acknowledgements by the ones that grant them that they are a bad idea !

    The biggest problem is that our local government has seen the tax dollars as a way to enrich themselves and the their cronies resulting in loss of money for services. Pure greed.

    It will collapse as the math doesn’t add up, same way the housing bubble collapsed. $250,000 K -plus retirement for a County bean counter, yet alone the huge salary ?

    Oh my, our politicians are 8 years behind the times. It saddens me, as I have sons that live here. Maybe we will all have to move away…

    Oh well, lets make more things illegal, rasie the fines and build a brand new $160 Million-plus Courthouse! That’s the ticket ! Toss in a 1/2 a Billion dollar train, and we are set for disaster !

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