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After 30 years as a cop on California’s North Coast, Charlie Bone stepped away from the beat and into a well-deserved retirement.

It was an easy decision for the Bodega Bay resident, then 55, because that’s when he became eligible to start collecting a more than $100,000-a-year pension.

But putting two kids through private college and not ready for a life of golf or travel, the decorated lawman did what many in his profession do — he went back to work as a court bailiff, joining a segment of Sonoma County government workers known as double-dippers who collect both a pension and a paycheck.

He’s not alone.

About 6 percent of the county’s 4,800 employees — or 274 people as of Dec. 31 — retired from the county at some point and returned to work the maximum of about six months a year, earning a second income. The total number of current county employees also receiving pensions is unknown, as the county doesn’t track those who previously worked outside the county.

Double-dippers occupy a range of positions across county departments, providing a variety of skills acquired from years on the job without costing additional training, health or retirement benefits. Officials estimate the savings to be $2.1 million.

“I understand people shake their heads and think of it as a negative but the reality is, it benefits them and it benefits us,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who serves on the board for the county pension system and on a county committee evaluating pension costs. “With their experience, they end up being very good hires.”

But double-dipping continues to evoke strong criticism, both on an economic and emotional level.

Though legal, it’s seen by fiscal watchdogs as a way for public employees to game the system, taking advantage of past pension policies that allow them to retire earlier than typical private sector workers. All the while, the county’s unmet pension liabilities now top $750 million, including long-term obligations to the retirement fund and taxpayer debt from past pension bonds.

“It really frosts people,” said Jack Dean, editor of PensionTsunami.com, a website focused on the state’s public employee pension crisis. “The bottom line is we as taxpayers are on the hook for the whole thing.”

Others say it is further evidence of the need for additional reform.

“If people are still working at 60, it tells you the retirement age of 50 or 55 is too low,” said Joe Nation, a Stanford University professor of public policy and former North Bay assemblyman. Before reforms enacted in 2012, 50 was the nearly standard retirement age for state and local law enforcement officers and other public safety employees in California. “If the logic is you can’t do your job at that age because it’s too physically demanding, you can’t do that in a second career either.”

Still, the practice is common, especially in law enforcement, where sworn officers hired before 2013 can retire as young as 50 and begin receiving pensions that often exceed what they made while working. Upon leaving their jobs, many return as bailiffs, background investigators and drivers, earning up to about $48 an hour.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office employs 62 such “extra-help” deputies who work mostly in court security, escorting criminal defendants to and from appearances, assisting juries and maintaining order at the Hall of Justice, putting in about 20 hours a week, up to a maximum of 960 hours a year.

All receive retirement checks — many in excess of $100,000 — and collect an average pay of about $33,000, although half made more than $40,000 in 2016, according to county statistics. Combined payroll for the group was $2.1 million.

None gets medical insurance or the other benefits included with a full-time deputy’s compensation. And they can be sent home when work tapers off, further cutting costs, Sgt. Spencer Crum, a Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said in an email.

“The biggest advantage by hiring retirees is the significant savings to the taxpayers,” Crum said.

Having seasoned cops in the courtroom is also good for the smaller number of younger, full-time deputies on staff. The older deputies serve as role models after years at agencies including the Sheriff’s Office, the Santa Rosa Police Department and California Highway Patrol.

“Also, law enforcement isn’t just a career, it is a lifestyle,” Crum said. “Extra-help, part-time work, helps (officers) ease out of the profession where we are so used to coming to work with a noble purpose of protecting our community.”

Bailiffs are hardly alone in the criminal justice world when it comes to double- and even triple-dipping. Judges with prior careers as prosecutors or public defense lawyers often receive two government checks. A special pool of court-appointed lawyers includes retired county workers, as does the team of about a dozen investigators at the District Attorney’s Office.

Judge Larry Ornell, a former prosecutor, probation officer, deputy sheriff and court commissioner, gets a $122,000 annual pension in addition to his $191,000-a-year state judge’s salary. He defended the practice, saying the jobs require specialized skills that command even more money in the private sector. Besides, the positions still would have to be filled if retired county workers didn’t accept them, he said.

“If I wasn’t on the bench I’d still be getting a pension and someone else would be doing my job,” Ornell said. “But I chose to work in my retirement.”

Outside criminal justice, county offices are filled with returning workers serving in roles from clerks to interim administrators. In some cases, those who come from other agencies can earn a second retirement.

Nation, the Stanford professor, said it contributes to an unmet $970 billion statewide pension obligation that would take $75,000 per household to pay off. Relief could come from reforms that increased the retirement age for public safety workers to 57 — and 67 for all other state and local workers — and a pending California Supreme Court ruling on pension changes for current employees.

“It’s going to be a long climb out,” Nation said.

Rabbitt said that process has already begun in Sonoma County, where state and local reforms have led to larger employee pension contributions and an end to things like pension spiking — the practice of artificially inflating compensation to receive larger pensions. At its meeting last week, the Board of Supervisors authorized a permanent citizens advisory committee to work on pension-cost solutions.

Rabbitt said the burden to taxpayers will lessen as older “legacy” employees move out of the system. Annual Sonoma County government pension costs for taxpayers are set to peak at more than $136 million in 2028-29, according to the county. In 2002, before enhanced retirement benefits were granted to local and state workers, annual pension costs for the county were $26 million.

“You have this kind of basketball passing through the snake right now,” Rabbitt said.

For Charlie Bone, the timing of his retirement and return to work was a “business decision” that came after about 17 years at the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant, followed by about 13 years as a Sonoma County deputy, where he ended up watching over the scenic coast.

“Many guys at the end of their careers are tired and frustrated,” said Bone, who is paid about $41,000 a year for the part-time work. “I was having the time of my life.”

The burly, mustachioed Central Valley native felt he was physically able to continue wrestling the drunks and angry people a cop encounters on the streets. But he began to worry about “the next one” — the physical confrontation he might not win. And he wasn’t improving his finances by staying longer.

So in 2009 he got out. And came right back.

“I did essentially turn right around and go back to work in the courts,” Bone said.

Now, instead of driving a patrol car, the 62-year-old deputy is keeping order in Judge Dana Simonds’ courtroom. The pace is slower and he’s often in the company of other retired officers and deputies who likewise found themselves working again to get kids through school or stay busy.

As a taxpayer, Bone understands the need to overhaul public pensions, the costs of which he agrees have spiraled out of control.

But he said the county must honor agreements it made to its workers. And he thinks criticism of double-dipping is misplaced: It’s a “win-win” because retired bailiffs perform a needed service for less money.

“People can be critical of it,” Bone said. “I would be interested to know what the basis of the criticism is. How isn’t it fair?”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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