Mostly clear

Sonoma County employee perks pay off in retirement

Shortly before he retired in early 2011, Sonoma County Supervisor Mike Kerns had been making an annual salary of $134,097.

But the county pension that he now receives is based on a much higher figure, his final earnings of $174,857.

The 30 percent boost came from Kerns cashing out $12,850 in accrued administrative leave and the inclusion of nearly $28,000 in other non-salary pay and benefits the county owed him.

Kerns worked 12 years for the county, so his annual pension of $53,542 is not one of the six-figure payments that has fueled public outrage over county retirement benefits. But like the top earners getting those pensions and hundreds of other former county employees, Kerns benefited from a system that allows workers to increase their retirement checks by including a wide range of pay and benefits outside of salary.

He makes no apologies.

"You play by the rules," he said. "I don't begrudge anyone taking what they have coming to them. ... If people find that objectionable, then maybe they need to change the rules."

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 the ones that raised Kerns' pension would be high on their list of fixes. They proposed to eliminate some and exempt others from retirement calculations. Supervisors also proposed to cut pay and make longer-range pension changes, including setting lower benefits for future hires. The moves won't take effect unless unionized employees agree.

A Press Democrat analysis shows that when they retire, Sonoma County government workers boost their final earnings, and thus their pensions, by an average of more than 12 percent over their annual salaries. The average increase for sheriff's deputies and other public safety workers is higher, more than 14 percent.

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