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.
Labor and management still are huddling over their own proposal due out later this month, and supervisors could take months before making any key decisions.
Public policy experts say such broad efforts face monumental obstacles, any number or combination of which can forestall change and push off savings. The hurdles include provisions of state and federal law, possible court challenges, legislative stalemates and labor opposition.
Until recently, overhaul efforts have sought ways around those roadblocks by focusing on less contentious changes, including reduced benefits for future hires, who enjoy few if any of the legal protections afforded current workers and retirees.
But those measures, which tend to produce more long-term than immediate savings, are now seen as insufficient by cash-strapped governments and others pushing pension changes.
Instead, the latest wave of overhauls feature rollbacks and cost shifts affecting current workers, and in some cases retirees.
"The big bucks are in the current employees," San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed said last week.
Reed is pushing his city to consider a ballot measure that includes provisions that would affect current workers and retirees.
Future hires would be shifted into a lower-cost plan combining a taxpayer-guaranteed pension with a 401(k)-type account where employees bear the investment risk. A similar idea was proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown last month in his pension overhaul proposal and Rabbitt suggested Sonoma County could do the same for future hires.
But Reed called those changes for future hires "small pieces" that "won't save us and won't save Sonoma."
"You need to make some really big changes to make differences in the cost," he said.
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