By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
County-employee pensions have taken center stage in the race for the Sonoma County’s 3rd supervisorial district, with incumbent Shirlee Zane touting her leadership on the issue as her opponent accuses her and the board of foot-dragging and proposing “cosmetic” changes that won’t solve the problem.
Zane says she supports the array of changes outlined in the pension overhaul she co-authored with Supervisor David Rabbitt with a goal of getting pension costs under 10 percent of payroll within 10 years. It’s currently 18 percent when bonded indebtedness is included.
Approaches include a cap on pensions, a higher retirement age and less-generous benefits for new employees, and a change in the makeup of the county’s pension board.
“You’ve got to do it all,” Zane said.
She said that county has begun executing the board’s strategy in negotiations with its many of the 3,400 employees, and has made it clear that county leaders will share in the sacrifice.
“County management will lead in this effort,” County Administrator Veronica Ferguson said in a letter to union leaders.
She stressed that all employee groups must share in an “equitable sacrifice,” and that included managers and supervisors, who will “reset their own total compensation … at the same time as negotiated settlements” with union groups.
To control soaring pension costs, the county seeks through negotiations to eliminate pension spiking, reduce overall salary by 3 percent for the entire workforce, and make some kinds of pay no longer count toward pensions.
Those all sound good, but they don’t go far enough, said attorney and former Rohnert Park Councilman Tim Smith. That plan would allow existing workers to continue accruing pension benefits at the unsustainable formulas that got the county into such a mess.
Smith said the first thing he would do as supervisor would be to not accept a county pension. This would eliminate for him the inherent conflict he sees of supervisors voting on changes that directly affect them financially.
He also would support the supervisors and top county management immediately reducing their benefit formula to what it was before the more generous formulas were instituted a decade ago.
Instead of the 3-at-60 formula (three percent of highest year’s pay times years of service) that allows workers to retire at age 60 with 90 percent of salary after 30 years, Smith would roll it back to 2-at-60 for new accruals. Under his plan someone who has worked for the county for 25 years would keep that vested 3 percent per year benefit, but would accrue benefit at a lower level for the remainder of their service. He believes this is both legal and necessary, though others disagree.
Neither candidate called for a 401(k)-type plan to replace the county’s defined-benefit plan.
Smith said he would also demand that the county consider the pension system’s entire debt when negotiating with unions, not just the $353 million unfunded liability figure cited by county officials.
That total figure is “over $1 billion” when pension obligation bond debt and retiree medical obligations are considered, Smith said.
Unlike Zane, whose plan proposes to “cap” pensions at the amount of highest salary, Smith is proposing a “hard cap” in the “low-six figures” for all workers, no matter what the pension formula says.
But Zane argues that such proposals would certainly incur legal challenges and result in lengthy and expensive litigation. The county’s effort is better spent negotiating with its workers than fighting with them in court.
“I don’t think pensions are bad. There needs to be sustainability and fairness and equality. And part of the fairness equation is the taxpayers.”