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.