SMART rail agency considers two-tier pension plan

The Sonoma-Marin commute rail agency, which expects to increase its workforce by five-fold within two years, is considering a pension plan for new employees that may be the stingiest among North Bay public agencies.

The plan would raise the age for full pension eligibility, eliminate the bolstering of pensions with such things as specialty pay and spread the risk of cost increases to employees.

"I think it's a lower plan than what I see most agencies going to," said Fran Elm, Santa Rosa's human resources director. "But it is still a good plan. I think people would be able to have a benefit that is sufficient to live on once they retire."

The proposal goes to the agency's board of directors for approval on Wednesday.

Valerie Brown, chairwoman of the Sonoma Marin-Area Transit district, said with agency about to ramp up employment, the timing is important.

"This is in keeping with the direction that all government agencies are going in," Brown said. "It is hybrid, it is probably what we will see throughout the state of California."

The agency's current employees, however, will continue with their existing plan, which provides more expansive benefits. SMART, by law and court rulings, cannot reduce promised pension benefits of workers already employed, said Amy Norris, a spokeswoman for CalPERS, the nation's largest public pension fund.

"For new hires, they can create a new plan and a lot of agencies are doing that, creating a second tier as a cost-saving measure," Norris said.

Public-worker pensions have become highly controversial because of rapidly escalating costs that burden tax-supported agencies, often forcing the curtailment of other services.

It has not become a crucial financial issue for SMART because the transit district has just 18 employees, said General Manager Farhad Mansourian.

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