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Sonoma County Board of Supervisors OK proposed pension fixes

Published: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 at 1:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 at 1:36 p.m.

Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously to support proposed changes aimed at curtailing the county's spiraling pension costs.

They include controls on spiking, cuts to salaries for current employees and reducing pension formulas for new employees.

“I think we are taking a good bite of the apple in this first step,” Supervisor Efren Carrillo said.

The changes would save county government an estimated $13.4 million annually in salary and benefit costs, and in 10 years, $11.7 million in annual pension costs.

Ken Churchill, a Santa Rosa winemaker who has criticized pension system oversight, expressed dismay at Supervisor David Rabbitt's assertion that the proposals are as far as supervisors can legally go at this time.

After the vote, Churchill said the proposed cost savings of $13.4 million annually is not "nearly enough" to address the county's pension problem. He contends that the board would have to find $55 million in annual savings just to hold level in future years.

Labor groups representing county employees must agree to the changes before they can be enacted.

Ed Clites, president of the 500-member Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, suggested to supervisors that they are not operating in good faith with his members.

Clites said after the hearing that he believes the board's proposals amount to a “take it or leave it” proposition.

However, his members will not oppose the board's plan to create a second pension tier for new public safety hires, he said.

Currently, public safety workers can retire at age 50 with 3 percent of their pay for every year worked - effectively 90 percent of their highest year's compensation based on a 30-year career.

The county is proposing to change the formula for new public safety workers to 3 percent at age 55, which Clites called the “industry standard.”

The corresponding benefit for general workers allows retirement at age 60 with 3 percent of their highest year's pay for every year worked.

The county proposes to change that formula to 2 percent at age 61.25.

But Clites said public safety employees will oppose the board's demand that they take a 3 percent cut in total compensation, including a 5 percent reduction in salary.

"We're going to ask for a pay raise because we don't think we're being paid enough compared to other counties," Clites said.

The proposed reductions in employees' salaries and benefits would save the county an estimated $3.2 million annually.

Several supervisors called the proposals a good first step toward addressing the county's pension problem and said they were leading the way with a proposal to cut their compensation by 6.9 percent.

Department heads would lose 4 percent and 3.5 percent would be taken away from administrative managers.

“We are going as far as we legally can go,” Rabbitt said. “If we take a bigger leap, we might end up in a manhole or abyss where we can't go.”

Carrillo said he hoped for a compromise in negotiations with employees.

The county currently is negotiating with its largest union, the Service Employees International Union, Local 1021, representing about half of the county's 3,500 employees.

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