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Sonoma County's retiree health costs resume upward march

Three years after a highly controversial rollback in retiree medical benefits, Sonoma County government's costs for retiree health care and its long-term liabilities again are on the rise.

The increase is shown in a county report made public last week and headed to the county Board of Supervisors Tuesday for acceptance.

It reveals what one supervisor, Shirlee Zane, called a "disappointing" picture of escalating costs that the county sought to cap in 2008 with benefit reductions approved over the protests of current and former workers.

The reductions are the subject of a court challenge. Their full extent is not set to kick in for another two years, but figures in the new report show the rollback already has dropped the county's retiree health care costs by as much as 42 percent a year and decreased taxpayers' long-term unfunded liability for retiree benefits by almost $150 million.

Both figures, however, are now on the rise. Annual costs jumped from $21.8 million in the fiscal year 2009-2010 to $24.7 million in the current year, the report showed.

Over the same period, the county's unfunded obligations to retiree medical over the next 30 years also increased by more than 13 percent, or nearly $39 million, to about $298 million, the report showed.

"It's frustrating," Zane said of the new projections, which came in a biannual review by a county actuary.

The county also is struggling under the weight of mounting pension costs and other fiscal woes. Next month officials will begin budget discussions likely to result in a fourth consecutive year of spending cuts for public services.

A renewed rise in retiree health care costs could exacerbate that crisis, county officials said.

"That it's going back up, that's not good news," Zane said.


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