2014-01-23 / Front Page

Taxpayer group trying to get reform measure on November ballot

By Anna Bitong

A local pension reform group is pushing for a law it says would reduce the current Ventura County retirement system’s estimated $1-billion debt and save the county millions of dollars a year.

The Committee for Pension Fairness has filed a proposed November ballot measure known as the Sustainable Retirement System Initiative, called the first initiative in the state to attempt countywide pension reform.

“(As) pension costs go up every year, we’re sacrificing services we really need: parks, libraries, hiring more deputies,” said David Grau of the Committee for Pension Fairness. “The county is not able to give pay increases. It all ties back to the pension issue.”

Under the plan, newly elected county officials and new county employees hired on or after July 1, 2015, would be enrolled in a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan to which the county would contribute no more than 4 percent of compensation for employees enrolled in Social Security.

The county would contribute up to 11 percent for public safety employees not enrolled in Social Security and 5 percent for those who do receive the benefit. The proposal does not address nonpublic safety employees not enrolled in Social Security.

The plan also seeks to limit pension-based salary increases for five years, which advocates say would reduce exorbitant payments.

The measure has sparked a flurry of arguments among public officials since it was introduced last week.

Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean, who strongly opposes the proposed law, said the claim that pension expenses are taking money away from county operations, including hiring new deputies, is “completely untrue.”

“The county has done an outstanding job managing its budget. It has the highest bond rating possible,” the sheriff said.

Instead of helping his department, the measure would hurt public safety, Dean said.

“It’ll certainly be detrimental to my ability to try to recruit and retain qualified people,” he said. “It’s really not a good idea, especially in the area of public safety.”

Ventura County Supervisor Peter Foy, an advocate for pension reform, disagreed with Dean.

“That’s the argument everyone wants to make,” Foy said. “I don’t believe that at all. Young deputies, especially, are more concerned about what you pay them. (The measure) is not saying you’re not going to get a pension. The pension is in a different format.”

The current pension system, Foy said, may be shortchanging public safety, schools and libraries “because there’s so much money going to pensions.”

“It’s getting very expensive,” the supervisor said. “(The measure) is a tremendous step forward in getting financial control going forward for new employees. It’s the right thing to do.”

Rising pension costs

Ventura County contributed $162 million to its pension fund in 2013, up from $45 million in 2004, the Committee for Pension Fairness reported. The 2013 figure accounts for 17 percent of the county’s budget.

“It has gotten dramatically larger,” Grau said.

According to the committee, about 80 percent of Ventura County retirees who receive more than $100,000 a year, earn more in pension than they earned while working for the county. The reason is pension spiking, which includes unused vacation time as well as other forms of pay to determine the final figures on which pensions are based. The Ventura County Employees’ Retirement Plan, established in 1947, provides retirement benefit services to more than 15,000 members.

“This impacts all residents of Ventura County,” Grau said. “We’re trying to create a fair and sustainable system for everyone going forward.” The measure would produce significant savings for the county, he said.

“Instead of pushing the debt onto our grandchildren, our goal is to eliminate the $1-billion liability over time.”

Dean said the committee’s calls for change have already been addressed by statewide pension reform. Grau said stronger reform is needed.

“The state Legislature that made (pension) reforms can next year reverse them,” he said. “That’s been the history of reform. Compare that to a voter initiative: Once the voters approve an initiative, it can only be reversed by another vote of the people.”

In February, Grau and his group, with the support of Foy, will begin gathering signatures to get the pension reform measure in front of voters in the fall.

“This is what California needs to do, and we’re hoping we’re going to see other counties following suit,” Foy said.

--Story  updated at 12:30 p.m. Jan. 24, 2014.

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