Call for county pension fix faces tough hurdles

Without a major overhaul of its retirement system, Sonoma County government faces "untenable consequences," including the continued skyrocketing of pension costs and the further erosion of funding for public services.

That is the message being delivered Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors in a 135-page report by two of its members.

"We cannot have a commitment to one generation cost us the ability to serve the needs of all generations," said Supervisors Shirlee Zane and David Rabbitt.

"We must change course," they said.

It is strongest call yet for pension changes out of county headquarters, and presents a set of daunting political and legal challenges for leaders trying to forge a path out of financial crisis for the county.

The message also reflects how a growing number of local and state governments, including California, are turning their focus on pensions, citing the increasing pressure retirement costs are putting on their recession-wracked budgets.

Recommendations made by Zane and Rabbitt include benefit and contribution changes affecting current workers and future hires, moves to scale back spiking of pensions through extra pay and perks, and a makeover of pension board governance.

Already, Supervisors Efren Carrillo and Mike McGuire say they also support the mix of proposals, and back what is likely to be a contentious debate over changes for existing workers.

Taxpayer-paid retirement costs for county employees are up 360 percent since 2000 and would more than double in the next decade without any action, cutting deeper into dollars for government programs and undermining public trust, according to the study prepared over nine months.

Its recommendations are aimed to save the county $115 million to $150 million over a 10-year period and reshape a sharply escalating retirement cost curve.

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