By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday unanimously endorsed proposed changes aimed at curtailing the county’s mushrooming pension costs.
They include controls on spiking, cuts to salaries for current employees and reducing pension formulas for new employees.
“I think we are taking a good bite of the apple in this first step,” Supervisor Efren Carrillo said.
The changes could save the county government about $13.4 million annually in salary and benefits costs and, in 10 years, $11.7 million in annual pension costs.
But none of the proposals will take effect unless unionized employees agree.
Ken Churchill, a Santa Rosa winemaker who has criticized pension system oversight, expressed dismay at Supervisor David Rabbitt’s assertion that the proposals are as far as supervisors can legally go at this time.
After the vote, Churchill said the proposed annual cost savings are not “nearly enough” to address the county’s pension problem. He contended the board would have to find $55 million in annual savings just to hold level in future years.
Also, labor groups representing county employees must agree to the changes before they can be enacted.
Ed Clites, president of the 500-member Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, suggested to supervisors that they are not operating in good faith with his members.
Clites said after the hearing that the board’s proposals amount to a “take it or leave it” proposition. However, his members will not oppose the board’s plan to create a second pension tier for new public safety hires, he said.
Currently, public safety workers can 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 county is proposing to change the formula for new public safety workers to 3 percent at age 55, which Clites called the “industry standard.”
The corresponding benefit for general county workers allows retirement at age 60 with 3 percent of their highest year’s pay for every year worked.
The county proposes to change that formula to 2 percent at age 61.25.
Clites said public safety employees will oppose the board’s demand that they take a 3 percent cut in total compensation, the equivalent of a 5 percent reduction in salary if benefits and other compensation are untouched.
“We’re going to ask for a pay raise because we don’t think we’re being paid enough compared to other counties,” Clites said.
The proposed reductions in salaries and benefits would save the county about $3.2 million annually.
Several supervisors said they were leading the way with a proposal to cut their compensation by 6.9 percent. If their salaries alone were targeted, they would drop 11.4 percent.
Department heads would lose 4 percent of overall compensation while 3.5 percent would be taken away from administrative managers.
“We are going as far as we legally can go,” Rabbitt said. “If we take a bigger leap, we might end up in a manhole or abyss where we can’t go.”
Carrillo said he hoped for a compromise in negotiations with employees.
The county is negotiating with its largest union, the Service Employees International Union, Local 1021, representing about half of the county’s 3,500 employees.
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek .firstname.lastname@example.org.