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.
Given how much is riding on this, why isn’t the county giving the public more of a chance to find out whether this new three-year labor contract provides the savings the county needs to get out of its pension/budget problems?
Long-sought changes to curb Sonoma County’s public pension costs are included in a proposed labor contract that covers about half the county workforce and is up for approval by the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
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.
The largest group of unionized Sonoma County government workers staged a noon-time rally Tuesday that escalated their pushback against pay and benefit cutbacks proposed in contract talks. The gathering, which drew about 200 workers to the county administration building, was organized by the Service Employees International Union, Local 1021, which represents about half of the county’s 3,500 employees.
Public employee pensions are a popular topic of discussion. Public perception seems to be that all Sonoma County retirees enjoy six-figure pensions. This is partly due to recent coverage in The Press Democrat of the large pensions of some retired elected officials and other county managers. Service Employees International Union believes that not enough distinction has been made between the pensions of managers, and those of the service-providing workforce, which includes our members. Not all public pensions are created equal.
The Sonoma County grand jury has picked up on the contention of a local pension system critic that the Board of Supervisors did not follow legal requirements when it approved enhanced retirement benefits for county employees a decade ago. Should that be grounds for rolling back the higher pension formulas promised to current county workers?
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 Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously endorsed a plan to overhaul the county’s pension system, saying that changes aimed to avoid soaring taxpayer costs and shift more of the burden onto workers will not come easily or overnight. The plan includes a cap on pensions for all employees, a higher retirement age and less-generous benefits for new employees, and a change in the makeup of the county’s pension board.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to overhaul public pensions rippled through the North Bay on Thursday, drawing mixed reaction from public employees, labor leaders, elected officials and fiscal watchdogs. Aspects of his 12-point proposal could impact nearly all of Sonoma County’s approximately 25,000 state, city, school and county workers. But the most sweeping changes would apply to future hires only.