PD Editorial: Sharpening the focus on pension mess

The conventional defense of Sonoma County pensions goes something like this: <CF102>There is no problem. The average pension for public employees is only $30,000 a year</CF>.

But that's only a small part of the picture. With his reports on Sunday and Monday, Staff Writer Brett Wilkison has mined new information provided to The Press Democrat to tell the rest of the story. And his work serves as further evidence for why the county's retirement system is in urgent need of comprehensive reform.

As Wilkison reported, if one looks at the averages for long-term employees — those working for more than 20 years — the payouts are substantial. And if one looks at how these averages have grown since the Board of Supervisors greatly expanded worker benefits about 10 years ago, the changes have been staggering.

For example, the average pension for long-time county employees, not including public safety, who retired in the decade prior to 2002 was $34,900. The average for workers who had the same jobs but retired between 2002 and 2011 is $64,600.

Meanwhile for public safety employees — sheriff's deputies, firefighters and others — average pensions have increased from $47,300 a year to $80,200 during that same time period.

Overall, pensions have risen four times faster than inflation in the past 10 years. And many of these increases have occurred amid one of the biggest economic downturns in the nation's history.

The problem is not just that these numbers have nearly doubled. It's that they're taking off.

In 2011, the <CF102>average <CF101>pension paid to <NO1><NO><NO1><NO>public safety workers was $94,000. And given that the county is prevented from unilaterally <NO1><NO>changing pension formulas<NO1><NO>, the averages will <NO1><NO>climb.

<NO1><NO>All of this leaves us with just more questions, namely:

<BL@199,12,11,10>What was the Board of Supervisors thinking when it started to <NO1><NO>ratchet up retirement benefits <NO1><NO>starting in 2003? The supervisors were clearly following the example set by the state Legislature, but that's a lousy excuse. It's bad enough that the county <NO1><NO>increased benefits. But what was the point of doing it retroactively?

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