Sonoma County pensions to cost millions more

A 42 percent spike in unfunded pension promises could further drive up taxpayer contributions to Sonoma County's retirement fund, with costs jumping by a third next year and going up by millions more each year through 2017.

The projected increases, triggered mostly by investment losses, were contained in a pair of sobering reports accepted Wednesday by the board of the $1.87 billion county government pension system.

They signaled a continued climb in annual county pension contributions — from $42 million now to $57 million starting in mid-2013, according to county estimates.

And they detailed a sharp, one-year rise of $104 million in the pension system's long-term unfunded obligations to retirees. The new total is $353 million.

County leaders and fiscal watchdogs said the presentation provided further impetus for an overhaul of the pension system to reduce the burden on taxpayers and relieve budget pressure on public services.

Since 2000, annual county pension costs including payments on pension bonds have risen more than 300 percent and are now at $87 million — about 19 percent of pay and benefits for the county's workforce. Overall county pension costs are projected to double in 10years without any action, county leaders have said.

"We have to make changes and we have to make them quick," said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who also serves on the board of the Sonoma County Employees' Retirement Association.

One labor representative at the meeting Wednesday questioned the need for a major overhaul, saying the reports provided only a snapshot of a recent shortfall.

Tom Drumm, with Local 1021 of the Service Employees International Union, the county's largest employee group, said the retirement system has been sufficiently funded over the long-term and that a market rebound could make the fund whole again, reducing taxpayer costs.

"I'm not convinced," Drumm said of the need for large changes.

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