Sonoma County supervisors have an unusual opportunity today: They can rectify a mistake.
In July, after receiving a detailed report on the county’s public employee retirement system and the drain on public services, the Board of Supervisors disbanded the Independent Citizens Advisory Committee on Pension Matters.
The committee made valuable contributions on matters large and small. Among other things, it calculated the $544 million gap between the county’s cost-saving goal and the results of its actual reforms. The panel also pointed out the lack of a consistent measure to gauge costs, trends and the health of the $2.3 billion pension fund.
Most, if not all, of the advisory committee members wanted to continue after spending nearly a year studying the arcane rules and practices of pension management, reviewing the Sonoma County Employee Retirement System and delivering a list of recommendations to the supervisors.
Indeed, one of the panel’s recommendations was to create an ongoing committee to provide transparency and public accountability on pension matters. The committee members’ knowledge, experience and independence would have served the public well in that role.
The board instead reinstated a subcommittee of Supervisors David Rabbitt and Shirlee Zane to address the committee’s recommendations, including the feasibility of a new hybrid retirement plan, and to develop pension reform strategies. The subcommittee is now recommending creation of a new Independent Citizens Advisory Committee. A vote of the full board is scheduled for this afternoon.
A new committee would be in place for about 20 months. Its primary responsibilities would be evaluating an annual State of the Retirement System report, which is to be developed by county staff, and reviewing any pension reform strategies developed by Rabbitt and Zane. The committee also would be authorized to propose new pension reform strategies.
To ensure continuity and ease the learning curve, at least two members of the original advisory committee would be appointed to the new panel. No one associated with any of the county’s past or present employee labor groups would be eligible to serve on the committee.
Given the complexity of the subject and the time invested by the original committee members, we believe all of them should be offered the opportunity to continue. There is merit, however, in the county staff report’s note that adding new members could get more people engaged in the pension issue and also could bring new ideas to the table.
The pension crisis isn’t over. A state law that took effect in 2013 eventually will deliver significant savings, but Sonoma County still has more than $800 million in unfunded liability and pension fund debt.
County costs are projected to continue growing for six more years, and a goal of reducing retirement costs to 10 percent of total compensation expenses — they’re now about 36 percent, including pension bond debt, according to the advisory committee report — is unlikely to be reached before 2030. (The Rabbitt-Zane subcommittee’s charge includes revisiting the 10 percent goal.)
The Independent Citizens Advisory Committee on Pension Matters performed an enormous service to Sonoma County by providing an unbiased accounting of the crushing cost of the county’s retirement system, recommending ways to make the pension system more transparent and identifying potential cost-saving reforms.
The panel also demonstrated the value of an independent public voice on pensions, an issue where the supervisors have both a vested personal interest and a public duty. By reconstituting the committee, the supervisors can keep a public eye on ongoing efforts to fix the county’s retirement system.