Sonoma County taking small step toward pension reductions

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors took tentative action Tuesday to reduce the cost of pensions for a small group of future employees.

The board authorized a new, lower set of benefit formulas for future hires who carry over from other government retirement systems their years of service and eligibility for benefits.

Because those employees make up a sliver of the future workforce, the change alone would put only a minor dent in the county's pension costs.

But it could be the first official overhaul of the county retirement system among the slate of more significant cost-saving measures proposed in contract talks or mandated by state law to take effect Jan. 1.

Supervisor David Rabbitt called it a "small but important part" of the county's plan to rein in skyrocketing pension costs.

Provided unions agree, the new benefit tier would apply to those employees hired after Dec. 31.

The change would affect a small segment of the future workforce. Only about 12 to 13 percent of county employees come to their job with previous government service that makes them eligible for benefits from Sonoma County. That carryover is allowed under so-called "reciprocal" agreements common among city, county and state agencies in California.

The change alone is expected to save the county a marginal amount off its annual pension costs, starting at an estimated $100,000 in the first year and growing to about $780,000 by 2022. The county's current annual contributions to its pension system are $47.9 million. Including payment on pension bond debt, total annual costs are about $94 million, or more than 400 percent what they were in 2000.

The change is not expected to lower the county's current unfunded pension liability, set last December at $353 million.

But county supervisors and officials argued that it does provide some savings to taxpayers and closes a loophole in state-mandated pension reform. Without the board action, officials said, those new hires covered under reciprocal agreements would have been eligible for the better pension benefits owed to all current employees.

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