County pension costs are up more than 400 percent since 2000 and the average annual compensation on which pensions are computed has risen 75 percent during that time to nearly $92,000 for workers retiring in 2011. The Board of Supervisors, in charge of setting benefits for a retirement system they acknowledge is unsustainable, has made no changes despite public outcry that bloated pensions are compromising essential public services. But last week, they indicated add-ons like ones that boost pensions would be high on their list of fixes.
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. The dramatic jump — four times greater than the rise in the cost of living — has affected at least 758 career employees who have retired under enhanced pension benefits approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2002 and rolled out for public safety workers in 2003. Higher benefits approved for other workers began in 2004.
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. The projected increases, triggered mostly by investment losses, were contained in a pair of sobering reports accepted Wednesday by the board of the $1.87 billion county government pension system.
The full CalPERS board voted this morning to lower its forecast from 7.75 percent to 7.5 percent. The change is expected to cost the state an additional $167 million a year out of the general fund. CalPERS’ chief actuary had recommended a reduction to 7.25 percent.
So did Sonoma County meet its earnings goal its first year after issuing $289 million in pension obligation bonds? It wasn’t even close. According to records recently posted by SCERA, the association achieved a return for 2011 of 1 percent, missing its mark by 6.75 percent.
Having lost a prolonged legal fight, officials overseeing the pension system for Sonoma County government have agreed to release a wider set of records showing how individual retirement benefits are calculated, including the extra pay and perks that can boost retirees’ pensions. County officials also have agreed to pay $93,516 in legal fees incurred by The Press Democrat, which prevailed this summer in a 2010 lawsuit seeking access to individual pension records for county retirees.
All five members of the Board of Supervisors are on the same retirement plan. Eight of the ten members of the Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association (SCERA) are former or current county employees. So who represents the public’s interests?
Officials with Sonoma County’s pension fund said Monday they will take at least two weeks before reacting to a new court ruling ordering them to release pension figures for thousands of county retirees. The Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association has not decided whether it will release the records or take another course, including an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
For the first time in decades, there are more retired Sonoma County workers drawing benefits from the county pension fund than there are active workers paying into it. The milestone, spurred in recent years by large reductions in the county work force, is common for pension systems that have been around for 50 years or more, pension officials said. The first consequence of the shift, however, likely will be an increase in county payments to the pension fund.
Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane is stoking debate about the transparency of public pension records. In a letter, she called on the county’s retirement board to disclose records on individual pensions. “It does not serve anyone well to shroud a public retirement system in unnecessary secrecy,” Zane wrote. Other supervisors distanced themselves from her request. See where they stand.