Mostly clear

CalPERS investment change to force bigger contributions from local governments

California's pension system lowered a key estimate of future investment returns Wednesday, a move that will drive up pension costs for cities across Sonoma County and further squeeze public services.

The board of the California Public Employees Retirement System voted 9-1 to reduce its investment return rate from 7.75 percent to 7.5 percent.

The decision will mean yet another hit to beleaguered local budgets as CalPERS jacks up pension contributions by public agencies to make up for lower investment returns.

The change will cost the state an estimated $303 million, and untold millions more for the municipalities and other local governments whose workers are covered by CalPERS retirement plans.

"This was a difficult, but important, decision for the board to make," Rob Feckner, board president, said in a statement. "We understand the impact this will have on our employers in meeting contribution requirements."

CalPERS is the nation's largest public pension fund, with $233 billion in assets. It provides retirement benefits to 1.6 million public employees and their families. Teachers and some county employees, including Sonoma County, have separate pension systems.

It was the first time in a decade the fund reduced the key interest assumption, known as the discount rate. The last time it was lowered from 8.25 percent to the current 7.75 percent, where it remained throughout the recession that decimated its investments.

To soften the blow on local governments, the board directed staff to come up with a plan to spread the costs over two years.

Local officials told the board that they already are laboring under falling revenues and tight budgets.

The threat of such increases has been one of the reasons Santa Rosa has pressed for long-term pension solutions, said City Manager Kathy Millison.

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