By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A 42 percent spike in unfunded pension promises could further drive up taxpayer contributions to Sonoma County’s retirement fund, with costs jumping by a third next year and going up by millions more each year through 2017.
They signaled a continued climb in annual county pension contributions — from $42 million now to $57 million starting in mid-2013, according to county estimates.
And they detailed a sharp, one-year rise of $104 million in the pension system’s long-term unfunded obligations to retirees. The new total is $353 million.
County leaders and fiscal watchdogs said the presentation provided further impetus for an overhaul of the pension system to reduce the burden on taxpayers and relieve budget pressure on public services.
Since 2000, annual county pension costs including payments on pension bonds have risen more than 300 percent and are now at $87 million — about 19 percent of pay and benefits for the county’s workforce. Overall county pension costs are projected to double in 10 years without any action, county leaders have said.
“We have to make changes and we have to make them quick,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who also serves on the board of the Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association.
One labor representative at the meeting Wednesday questioned the need for a major overhaul, saying the reports provided only a snapshot of a recent shortfall.
Tom Drumm, with Local 1021 of the Service Employees International Union, the county’s largest employee group, said the retirement system has been sufficiently funded over the long-term and that a market rebound could make the fund whole again, reducing taxpayer costs.
“I’m not convinced,” Drumm said of the need for large changes.
One of the reports — the actuarial valuation — gave an end-of-year measure of pension fund assets versus obligations owed to current and future retirees. For the county and two smaller government employers in the retirement system — Valley of the Moon Fire District and Sonoma County Superior Court — the figure is a key factor determining what they must pay into the pension system in the future.
Last year, the report showed a $154 million drop in unfunded liability, due largely to the $289 million in pension bonds sold by the county in 2010. The funding boost reduced the required county contribution in 2011-2012 by about $3 million.
Deferred investment losses, along with other factors, are now reversing that one-year drop and driving up taxpayer costs.
The investment losses come mostly from 2008, when the pension fund lost $670 million in a stock market freefall, as well as from 2011, when flat earnings resulted in a loss of $140 million.
For 2011, the total loss recognized by the retirement fund was $125 million — offset by smaller investment gains in 2007, 2009 and 2010.
“It’s been a tough last decade because of all the changes in the market and in the economy,” said Gary Bei, administrator of the Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association, which represents about 8,000 retired and current employees.
Smaller-than-expected salary increases proved the only major offsetting factor for taxpayer costs in 2011. That trend held down the spike in unfunded liability by about $30 million.
The other report presented Wednesday showed unfunded liability for the county system soaring as high as $572 million by 2015, a rise that would drive up taxpayer contributions by millions through 2017.
County leaders said the report was alarming.
“We knew this was coming, although I think it was a little worse than anticipated,” said Rabbitt.
Fiscal watchdogs said the reports showed the need for significant pension system changes, including measures affecting current employees. Those changes are seen as the fastest way to achieve savings, but have frequently fallen to legal challenges in California.
Changes the county is pursuing in contract talks and in revisions to state law include capping benefits for all employees, scaling back pension spiking created through extra pay and perks, reducing benefits and raising the retirement age for new employees and increasing public oversight of the pension fund.
County Administrator Veronica Ferguson urged employee groups to acknowledge the need for those measures.
“Are we in triage mode today?” Ferguson said. “We’ve identified (the pension issue), we’re working on it … Hopefully they’re willing to address it in negotiations.”
Labor representative Drumm said his union has shown a willingness to discuss pension changes at the bargaining table.
The reports presented Wednesday did not propose increases for employee contributions into the pension system. State law governing county pension systems shields employees from increases driven by past investment experience.
Currently, county employees pay among the highest rates into their retirement among their state and local government colleagues, with about 12 percent of their paychecks going to pensions. Along with deductions from the fire district and court employees, that equated to just over $37.3 million in the calendar year 2010, according to county pension system records.
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.