Pushing pensions higher

Pensions for career Sonoma County government workers have more than doubled in the past decade, led by sheriff's deputies and other public safety workers who by 2011 were retiring with an average of more than $94,000 a year.

Employees outside the ranks of public safety who retired in 2011 with 20 or more years averaged nearly $68,000 — 107 percent more than what co-workers who retired in 2002 get on average, county retirement records show.

The dramatic jump — four times greater than the rise in the cost of living — has affected at least 758 career employees who have retired under enhanced pension benefits approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2002 and rolled out for public safety workers in 2003. Higher benefits approved for other workers began in 2004.

Both deals granted a higher percentage of compensation for every year worked and lowered the retirement age, to 50 for public safety workers and 60 for all other workers.

Outrage over public pensions is sweeping through California and the nation. Many workers in the private sector, who've seen their employers shed defined-benefit pension plans in favor of 401(k)-type plans, are demanding that government do the same.

One former county sheriff who gets substantially less in retirement than his successors called the higher county pension amounts "obscene."

"Not only the pension piece, but the salaries," said Mark Ihde, a two-term sheriff who retired in 1997 with a pension that is now little more than a quarter of the retirement earned by the latest retiring sheriff.

The scrutiny comes in an era of austerity for government, with less money available for roads, parks, libraries, health and welfare programs and a range of other services. Higher retirement benefits were granted years ago, in part to attract and retain workers, but also as a strategy intended to slow the rising pace of salaries. Now those deferred costs are coming due.

The higher pensions promised to the current workforce are a key factor, along with investment losses, in the county retirement system's long-term shortfall, now set at $353 million. The system's investment portfolio is valued at $1.8 billion.

Taxpayer costs for county pensions, including payments on bond debt, meanwhile, have risen 401 percent in the past 12 years, to $87.2 million a year.

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