Five months from now, Sonoma County intends to launch its program to become the power supplier to 220,000 local homes and businesses, displacing Pacific Gas and Electric Co. from its position of energy dominance.
Here is the gravity of our county’s financial situation. From 1991 to 2000, the county spent $108 million on pensions, an average of $10.8 million per year. From 2001 to 2010, the county spent $302 million on pensions, but ended the decade with a $330 million liability and $515 million in pension bond debt. Added together, the average cost was $114.5 million per year, 10 times more than the previous decade. These numbers may sound shocking, but the reality of the situation is much, much worse because these numbers are based upon accounting gimmicks and overly optimistic investment return assumptions.
Did Sonoma County supervisors break the law in the way they boosted retirement benefits for themselves and other employees 10 years ago? The county grand jury posed that question earlier this year, and the county issued its formal response last week. As I read through it, I was reminded of former President Bill Clinton’s famous parsing of words: “It depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.”
Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday unanimously endorsed a legal report disclosing that procedural errors were made a decade ago by county officials who adopted more generous pension formulas. County officials failed to fully meet a requirement that would have given the public at least two weeks to review and comment on the financial impact of the pension increases before their adoption, a report by the Sonoma County Counsel’s office found. ‘There’s no denying that the 100 percent letter of the law was not followed on this piece,’ said Supervisor David Rabbitt, commenting on the results of the inquiry by county attorneys.