Sonoma County's average pension for new retirees has risen dramatically over the past 10 years, outstripping the cost of living by nearly 5 to 1 and driving up taxpayers' costs.
The trend is fueled by generous pay and benefit policies adopted almost a decade ago by the county Board of Supervisors and by state legislation and court rulings.
Members of the pension system for county government and several special districts who retired in 2002 receive an average annual pension of $22,291. New retirees since then have been receiving sharply more, with those retiring so far in 2011 getting an average pension of $48,814, an increase of nearly 119 percent over eight years.
The figures come from records released last week by the county's retirement system under a court order handed down as the result of a Press Democrat lawsuit.
Ballooning payouts, which have come during a severe recession and stock market setbacks, have required taxpayers to devote millions more each year to the pension system, contributing heavily to county government's fiscal woes.
Records from the county's pension system highlight a key decision behind the increased retirement spending.
In 2002, at the urging of labor and with the endorsement of management, the county Board of Supervisors approved a more generous set of pension benefits for all current workers.
The change, fueled by salary increases and combined with other workforce trends, is now seen as driving the upward spiral in pension costs.
One ex-county official now looks back on the decision as a pivotal moment.
"It's nearly impossible to do something like that and guarantee it forever," said Mike Chrystal, who was county administrator at the time.
The deal was designed to pay for itself through a cost-sharing agreement with employees and surplus investment income. In the wake of the 2008 stock market crash, however, taxpayers have been largely responsible for footing the bill, a trend that could continue over the long term unless investments rebound or future benefits are revised.
"Looking back, it makes you wonder," Chrystal said.
Chrystal served on the retirement board after he stepped down from the administrator's post in 2004. He was the only top county official involved in the decision who would discuss it.
Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas and Democratic Assemblyman Michael Allen of Santa Rosa, both of whom lobbied for the benefits as labor leaders, also gave their perspectives.
Past members of the Board of Supervisors who upgraded the benefits in a series of votes -- Tim Smith, Mike Reilly, Paul Kelley and Mike Kerns -- did not return phone calls requesting comment.
Current Supervisor Valerie Brown, who has been on the board since late 2002 and voted to approve pension changes, returned a call Saturday night, but could not subsequently be reached for an interview.
Rod Dole, the county's longtime financial chief who retired in May and now earns the top pension among 3,916 county and special district retirees -- $254,625 a year -- also did not return calls for comment. Dole also served for years on the retirement board.