PD Editorial: The tricks and gimmicks that pad pensions

Planning to retire as a Sonoma County department head? Give a year's notice, and you'll increase that all-important final-year salary by 5 percent.

Give up that county car and take a car allowance in that final year and you'll get another boost. The car is not pensionable. The allowance is.

Want to pad that pension some more? Cash out that unused administrative leave, vacation and holiday time, etc.

All of it is spiking. It's all legal, but it's also become unseemly, particularly given how soaring retirement costs are crippling county government and how the system has personally benefited those in positions of authority.

As Staff Writer Brett Wilkison and News Researcher Teresa Meikle reported Sunday ("Employee perks pay off in retirement"), before retiring in 2011, Supervisor Mike Kerns was able to boost his final-year total compensation 30 percent by using some of these tricks. Kerns cashed out $12,850 in accrued administrative leave as well as nearly $28,000 in other benefits the county owed him.

After 12 years on the Board of Supervisors, Kerns is now receiving an annual pension of more than $53,000. That is on top of the pension he is receiving as a longtime employee of the Petaluma Police Department. Combined, his pension is in excess of $105,000 a year.

Kerns was on the board 10 years ago when it ushered in this era of enhanced retirement benefits for public employees, a giveaway that now threatens to break the back of county government.

Rod Dole, the former auditor-controller-treasurer-tax collector, also had a strong voice in guiding policy on pay and retirement. And in the end, he used these kinds of gimmicks to add nearly $20,000 to his final year salary. He now receives a pension of $254,625 a year.

This is the same Rod Dole who, before retiring, encouraged the county Board of Supervisors to issue more in pension obligation bonds to kick this can of financial problems down the road. Dole also served on the Sonoma County Employee Retirement Association board, which refused this newspaper's requests for detailed information about how the public's money was being spent on pensions. In the end, The Press Democrat had to pay SCERA $8,500 for the data needed to prepare these numbers in a way that gave a full picture of the problem.

It seems clear to us the county should have been tracking these numbers all along. At the least, supervisors should have had this information before they decided to risk more taxpayer money, at Dole's encouragement, by issuing additional pension obligations bonds in hopes the problem will be helped through market gains. So far, it hasn't. Sonoma County now has the highest per-capita pension bond debt of any county in California.

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