Sonoma County supervisors create permanent citizens panel on pension reform

Supervisors agreed to allow committee members to also be beneficiaries of the county’s pension system.|

Sonoma County supervisors have authorized a new panel of citizens to evaluate steps the county can take to rein in its employee pension costs, hoping the group can help them make further progress on a policy challenge as complicated as it is expensive.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to form a permanent, seven-member citizens committee that will meet several times a year to examine the county’s existing pension reform efforts and consider new strategies. The group - whose recommendations will be strictly advisory - will present annual updates to the board and be subject to state law requirements for open, public meetings.

Significantly, after hearing extensive objections from union members and leaders, supervisors agreed to strike a proposed requirement that the committee’s members could not be beneficiaries of the county’s pension system, which would have made county employees ineligible to serve on the panel.

Instead, committee members must only be a county resident with the “aptitude for dealing with complex financial information.” Prospective members will apply through an open process, and be appointed by a majority vote of the board, likely in June or July.

“I’m open to the makeup of the body,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, a longtime board member of the county pension system and a veteran leader of local reform efforts. “Looking at the bigger picture and the politics of the county and what we want to achieve, whether it’s fixing our roads, fixing our parks, you can’t deny that pension ... comes up over and over again. And it remains a political issue because of that. And we need to address it.”

Through the citizens panel and other efforts, supervisors want to sharply reduce taxpayers’ pension costs, which are estimated this year at more than $107 million - a dramatic increase from a decade ago that continues to stem from generous benefits given to local and state government workers in the early 2000s.

Changes at the state and local levels have already saved taxpayers $178 million, the county says, but that won’t be sufficient to hit an important benchmark in 2024, when the county had hoped to have pension costs at or below 10 percent of its annual spending on salary and benefits. Pension costs currently account for nearly 18 percent of payroll spending, and recent estimates show the county won’t hit its target until the 2031 fiscal year.

The goal is set to be revisited by an ad hoc committee - comprised of Rabbitt and Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman - whose charter also was approved by the board Tuesday. Among Zane and Rabbitt’s other charges is to evaluate the feasibility of creating a hybrid retirement plan that would combine aspects of pension- and 401(k)-style defined-contribution plans.

Rabbitt and Zane also will study possible ways of reducing the county pension system’s unfunded liabilities of $750 million, a figure that includes county obligations to the retirement fund as well as taxpayer debt from past pension bonds.

The plans approved by supervisors Tuesday follow an earlier proposal that would have created a temporary panel similar to one that submitted recommendations in 2016. The board delayed action in February after Rabbitt suggested the committee instead meet on an ongoing basis.

Several county employees and union leaders spoke critically Tuesday of the county’s move to form another committee, questioning whether the group could truly be independent, accusing supervisors of “playing politics” with employee pensions.

“The whole idea of an independent group of people that have no opinion on pensions is fallacious and it’s ridiculous,” said Lisa Maldonado of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the largest union representing county workers. “It’s not like there’s a bunch of people out there that just happen to love to talk about pensions and have no ideology or opinion on it.”

Union representatives doubted the need for a citizens committee at all but insisted that if one must be formed, it should include someone who benefits from a county pension. That would not have been allowed under county staff’s original recommendation, but supervisors ultimately agreed to the request.

“It’s probably a fair thing to do, in terms of the balance of this committee, to consider an employee who has a pension here with the county,” said Zane, who has been another key voice in the county’s pension reform efforts.

With assets valued at more than $2.5 billion, the county’s retirement system supports more than 4,800 retirees and 4,100 active members. A large majority of the active members will still get generous benefits secured by employees prior to the 2012 passage of state legislation that brought major changes to California’s public pension systems.

“This is an important benefit that people (who) have worked from Day One in their employment going forward ... want to ensure is going to be here, not just for themselves, I hope, but for their colleagues and the next generation,” Rabbitt said.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter ?@thejdmorris.

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