WatchSonoma Watch

County implements state-mandated lower pensions for new hires


A day after many of its signature overhaul proposals were rejected in a lopsided union vote, Sonoma County took action Tuesday to implement state-mandated changes to employee pensions.

The changes, most of which do not require labor’s approval, affect mainly future hires and are expected to help curb rising taxpayer costs over the long run.

Annual savings are projected to top $1.2 million in the first year and grow to more than $17 million by 2022, according to a county actuary.

County officials cited those figures as progress despite other signs of a growing standoff with labor at the county government campus Tuesday.

“We’re starting to move. It’s really encouraging,” said County Administrator Veronica Ferguson.

Meanwhile, union representatives were emboldened after the county’s largest labor group on Monday overwhelmingly rejected a proposed contract that included pay concessions and pension rollbacks outside of the state-ordered revisions.

While not opposed to some pension changes, union representatives said they could not accept the contract’s central one, a proposal that would have shifted an additional share of pension premiums, equivalent to 2.25 percent of pay, onto employees.

The result would be a reduction in take-home pay. The union has already experienced a five-year freeze in cost-of-living adjustments to wages. They have received pay increases based on merit and experience levels.

“We can’t afford to keep cutting,” said Tim Tuscany, a psychiatric nurse and bargaining team member with Service Employees International Union Local 1021.

The union’s 1,700 county workers include mostly lower-paid line staff. On Monday, their voting ranks turned down a three-year contract with the county, with 83 percent of those participating in the election voting no.

Union officials would not say how many of the 1,250 workers eligible to cast votes did so, but described the turnout as “healthy.”

Less than 12 hours later, a group of union leaders and workers turned out Tuesday morning at the Board of Supervisors meeting determined to reinforce their message.

“Some people might get the impression from reading the newspaper that this was a rejection of pension reform,” Chip Atkin, a county social worker, told supervisors. “It’s not. It’s about take-home pay.”

Union representatives told the board they were not likely to find consensus in their ranks without a cost-of-living adjustment. They also said additional county contributions to employee medical costs were not enough to offset a new insurance plan, with lower premiums but higher co-pays.

They echoed previous battle cries that management ranks have been largely untouched in budget cuts since 2008 and said those higher paid workers needed to give more in concessions before they would.

“The problem is fat management,” Atkin said.

Another union leader fired an even stronger shot across the county bow.

Laura Strand, a representative of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 39, with about 100 county workers, said the group would accept the pension changes for future hires but would move no further. The group is currently in negotiations,

“There will be no further economic diminishment of our members,” she said to supervisors, reading a prepared statement.

The board did not respond to the comments and county officials interviewed later said they would be returning to the table with SEIU today and with other unions in the weeks to come to hear their concerns and work toward agreements.

But the county was not immediately revising its overall goal of cutting 3 percent of compensation for all employees, including line staff, management and elected officials.

The pension changes are also keyed to a long-term goal to reduce county pension costs to 10 percent of total payroll.  Those costs, including payment on pension bond debt, are currently at $97 million or about 20 percent of total payroll and were on track to grow to 30 percent of payroll within 10 years without any changes.

“At this point we don’t have any new direction to our labor negotiators,” said Ferguson, the county administrator. “We’ll be looking to move closer to understand what their needs are while not moving away from what our needs are.”

The circling by the two sides overshadowed the actions taken by the Board of Supervisors to implement the state changes to pensions.

Those included votes authorizing a new, lower tier of pension benefits for future hires. For some of those workers with previous government service, the county will need union approval to change future benefits.

Another state revision for future workers will lengthen the period upon which final earnings, and thus pensions, are calculated — going from one year to three years. The county will also cap the earnings on which pensions can be based for future workers, starting at $113,700 in 2013.

County officials have sought additional overhauls, including the reduction or elimination of various types of non-salary pension-eligible pay and perks.

Until contracts are changed, those practices are set to continue for current workers, with some limits under the state revisions, which are tighter for future workers.

The state changes take effect Jan. 1.

The county is currently in negotiations with nine of its 11 bargaining groups. Deals with those employees must be reached before approved pay and pension cuts to management and elected officials take effect.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

9 Responses to “County implements state-mandated lower pensions for new hires”

  1. GAJ says:

    @County Employee:

    you really don’t have a good grip on the extent of this ongoing, and building, theft, do you:

    “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.

    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.”


  2. County Employee says:

    @Snarky, I was using Fiscal Conservative’s term, not necessarily a term I would have chosen otherwise. But unlike you, I read the posts I’m replying to. “Man-up” is a euphemism for maturing and acting responsibly and has nothing to with gender. Most people understand that. And I’m female, genius. Your numerous posts are usually fragmented and disconnected from the topics at hand and it seems your only aim is to sling insults and derail a more legitimate discussion. Why not try adding something meaningful to the discussion instead of trying oh so hard to be snarky – an endeavor you usually fail at anyway. You’re no Bill Maher or Dennis Miller.

    Anyway, back to a real topic…

    The media and the attention whores like to point to the most egregious examples of pensions gone wild, like that of the former Treasurer, as though these are common. If I remember correctly, the average Sonoma County pensioner currently receives about $30,000 per year. If you add in the $500 per month they are eligible to receive towards health insurance, that brings the total to a whopping $36,000 per year. That is hardly a bonanza.

    Those who have retired in the last 8 years are probably receiving more because of the 3% at 60 scheme put in place in 2004. I don’t know of any person, line staff or manager, who honestly believes this rate to be fair and sustainable. It only came to pass because the Board of Supervisors saw an opportunity to enhance their own pensions. Has they acted responsibly and unselfishly, they would never haven allowed it.

    Only now that the public is aware of the pension problems are they willing to address it. But here’s the rub, they only want to change the formula for future employees. They want to leave the 3% at 60 in place for current employees (including themselves), lower the benefit for future hires, and then claim to have addressed the problem. If they really wanted to curb pension costs, they would have instructed their negotiators to propose a lower benefit plan for all employees in the current negotiations with the labor unions starting with SEIU in May of this year. But they didn’t. They are not willing to sacrifice anything for themselves, only for future faceless and nameless people.

  3. Danielle says:

    Pensions pensions pensions. That is all anyone can talk about these days it seems like.

    Did you know that the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors are the 3rd highest paid BOS in the entire state of California? Did you know that they voted to give themselves thir cushy salaries along with MANY numerous jobs perks? They also generously award management who sometimes appear to do absolutely nothing. Even people in the private sector know of management who appear to do absolutely nothing yet are paid generously for their “valiant” efforts.

    Did you know that Sonoma County employees pay the most toward their pensions than any other county in the state of California? 12.5% I believe it is per paycheck. Did you know that Sonoma County employees have not had a cost of living adjustment since 2007? Has the cost of living increased since 2007? Yep. Has the cost of health insurance gone up since 2007? Yep. And the BOS wants regular working class line staff to pay more. The BOS won’t look at their cushy salaries (which are a HUGE part of the pension problem mind you) and numerous job perks – they’d rather take from people who work tirelessly at a job that doesn’t increase pay with inflation or medflation, at a job that won’t provide adequate health insurance for themselves and their families, and at a job where they are asked to do the work of multiple employees because management would rather hire more managers than actual working class line staff.

    The public should be outraged by this! The BOS and management are framing this debate like regular working class line staff are the problem when the problem is the BOS and management! Their solution is to cut working class line staff pay and benefits to offset their own egregious salaries and job perks. Who in their right mind could look at themselves in the mirror knowing full well that they are bleeding regular working class line staff dry because of their own selfishness and greed?

    I don’t elect people into office so they can screw over the working class man/woman. I elect people into office that will actually do good for the people not just those in management. This BOS has some serious soul searching to do and I think all of you should be outraged by their continued efforts to chip away at middle class families who only want to be the best public servants that they can be.

  4. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    County Employee- you forgot to add that county paid car allowance is chosen by managers over a county car BECAUSE IT IS PENSIONABLE. There are plenty of hybrids available for driving. Most employees who drive their own cars submit a mileage reimbursement form and don’t have an “allowance” or they check out a county car. This is another management perk that needs to be eliminated.

    Now if only the public would get behind that Oregon law that the manager to rank and file ratio be mandated at 1:11 we’d be going somewhere. This county has decided that the rank and file is dispensible and replaced many positions with higher paid managers some of them doing clerical work. This county’s ratio of rank and file to manager is less than 6 to 1 (6:1) with the county adding more management positions, it seems, every week. The PD goes to the BOS meetings where these positions are approved. Why isn’t the PD questioning the BOS about this ratio?

    The public needs to get behind the rank and file employee unions who have been objecting, VOCIFEROUSLY for YEARS, about this unequitable situation. The rank and file are being tarred and feathered by the public because of management excesses in salary and benefits, in basicly management rewarding themselves richly (especially pension wise), and in protecting their jobs by laying off rank and file staff.

  5. Change Sonoma Culture says:

    County Employee – Many county employees agree. The county culture has become one of self indulgence. You are not going to move up the ranks unless you unquestionably support the status quo which means pushing for higher pay and more pension benefits for the highest paid managers and administrators. When they eventually bankrupt the system, they will still be able to live on 1/2 their pension. How about you? Could you live on 1/2 your pension? Keep pushing for change or we will be the ones to suffer.

  6. Snarky says:

    “County Employee” said, “County employees have been manning-up for years.”

    Brilliant choice of words. Sounds like you just got out of prison.

    Half the work force is female, genius.

  7. County Employee says:

    County employees have been manning-up for years. We took a pay cut in the form of mandatory, unpaid time off for three years in a row. That amounted to 2-3% pay cut each year. Employees with dependents on health insurance have been paying close to 50% of the cost of the health insurance compared to 20% in earlier years. The County has shed hundreds of line staff by eliminating some positions and simply leaving others unfilled indefinitely. The loss of workers means that those left have seen their workloads increase by 20-40% in the last five years while pay has remained unchanged since 2007.

    Line staff employees understand the pension problems and have accepted that we need to make changes to sustain pensions and the County’s ability to provide services. What we will not tolerate is the fact that the County’s Department Heads, Administrative Managers, and the Board of Suoervisors are enjoying higher than average salaries, enhanced retirement perks in the form of contributions to their deferred comp accounts, and excessive car allowances – in some cases they are receiving more than $8,000 per year for a car allowance.

    The budget problems will not be solved solely on the backs of the working class. We didn’t create this mess alone and we aren’t responsible for fixing it alone.

  8. Fiscal Conservative says:

    Are these the Union folks who bake the Twinkies or haul them to the store?

    I have no sympathy for these employees at all.

    These folks need to do like every one of us hardworking taxpayers and man-up and take the cuts. Even with the cuts and offsets the package is way too generous.

    I want my tax dollars to go to infastructure and basic services, Not to a ponzi scheme pension plan that will have my great grandchildren in debt.

    Great job on the State mandated cuts. It’s a baby step, but a great first step.
    Well done.

  9. The Hammer says:

    It’s a start.