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?
<BL@199,12,11,10>At the time, the county said employees would pay for the enhanced benefits through increased contributions and a surplus in investment assets. Why hasn't that happened? Yes, employees are now paying 12 percent toward these benefits, one of the highest contribution rates in the state. But taxpayers have been hit harder. The taxpayer share of county pensions, including payments on bond debt, has risen 401 percent in the past 12 years.<NO1><NO>
<BL@199,12,11,10>Finally, why didn't the county and the public have this detailed information about pension trends when supervisors voted in late 2010 to borrow $289 million <NO1>in additional pension obligation bonds<NO>to cover retirement debt? It's unfortunate that it reached the point that this newspaper had to sue to get the county retirement board to release these figures. It's also unfortunate that the PD had to <CF102>pay<CF101> the retirement association to prepare these numbers in a way that told the whole story. These officials should have been tracking these numbers all along.
Here's the other troubling truth. Despite all the reform talk, nothing has changed. New hires at the county are still being promised these same retirement benefits which threaten to pull the county underwater.
No more plans, promises or procrastination. The county needs real progress.