Efforts to overhaul California's public pension system are getting a boost as taxpayers voice outrage over a former sheriff who asked a court for $75,000 more a year in retirement pay -- on top of his current annual pension of $276,000.
The latest battle in Ventura County is being fueled by the case of former Sheriff Robert Brooks. He retired in 2011 with a salary of $227,000. Today, he collects $50,000 a year more than that, with guaranteed cost-of-living increases. But that wasn't enough. Now he's suing for $75,000 more, claiming it’s allowed under the law.
But voters may have the final say going forward. Ventura County voters will consider an initiative in November, similar to a possible statewide measure, that would funnel all new employees into a 401k savings plan rather than a pension. It would also, like an initiative passed in San Jose, give current employees a choice -- either increase their contributions or cut future benefits.
"People are so excited that finally somebody is going to do something about this problem," said Jim McDermott, of Ventura County Taxpayers Association. "I'm pretty confident that we are going to follow in the success that we've seen in San Diego and San Jose. We're going to be successful without question."
Unions, as might be expected, oppose the measures.
"I think it's ideologically driven by people who simply don't believe that there should be a pension system for public employees, period," said union activist Rick Shimmel. "We don't see the 401k as a pension plan. We see it as a savings vehicle to help people during their retirement years. 401ks carry no guarantee, and that's the distinction between a defined-contribution system and defined-benefit system."
True or not, 73 percent of California voters favor moving new public employees into 401ks, according to the nonpartisan California Public Policy poll last year.
"Reforming these pensions is really popular with the voters in blue states, red states, it doesn't matter," said Adrian Moore of the Reason Foundation. "People want the government workers to have benefits that are somewhat in line with what they expect to get in their private sector jobs."
Analysts say the long-term erosion of private sector pensions is breeding a resentment over generous public payouts. That disparity helped fuel votes in San Jose and San Diego in 2012. In San Jose, voters moved new employees into 401ks and gave current employees a choice of raising their contributions or taking a cut in future benefits. San Diego approved the 401k transition for all employees but police. Both measures are being argued in court by unions who claim vested benefits and contracts can't be changed.
Brooks' attorney told the Pacific Coast Business Times his client was promised his retirement package would include the standard pension and supplement, a nice boost in addition to already generous pension terms -- which allows retirees to "spike" their pensions upwards by using banked vacation time, sick time, bonus pay and uniform allowances.
"I think anybody with a reasonable mind on this issue realized some changes had to take place, the pendulum had swung too far," admits current Sheriff Geoff Dean. "(But) don't fault the employees, you're no different than I am, everyone wants to get paid as much as they can. So they ask for it and elected officials, at the time, and over the past 35-40 years, granted those increases."
Dean said state reforms proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year solved the problem. He opposes the Ventura initiative and says if approved, he won't be able to compete with neighboring departments for the best and brightest candidates.
"It's a great concern because it's about human beings and lives and the future of the organization that you are talking about," Dean said. "I'm competing against other police agencies."
"Well, that's just nonsense," McDermott countered. "Somehow the private sector throughout the country has attracted and retained great talent with the 401k-type system, so I have no doubt that we'll be able to attract and retain top quality talent. And there's nothing in our initiative that limits the board of supervisors' ability to raise compensation if that's necessary, but the value is that it would be transparent compensation."
An analysis by the Los Angeles Times found 84 percent of the roughly two-dozen Ventura County retirees with pensions in excess of $100,000 made more money in retirement than working.
When chief county executive Marty Robinson left in 2011 making $228,000, his annual pension totaled $272,000.
Their packages are emblematic of what critics consider a runaway pension problem.
The chief executive of Solano County retired with a $371,000 pension. A police chief in Stockton left with a $204,000 annual pension after just eight months on the job. An Orange County attorney retired with a pension of $226,000 -- $14,000 more than his final salary. He also got a check for $352,097 for nearly 2,500 hours of unused sick and vacation time.
In California, 20,000 employees have pensions in excess of $100,000.
The mayor of San Jose wants to file a statewide pension reform measure that would trim, but not eliminate, the benefits of current employees, as well as moving new employees into 401ks. It's necessary, he says, to reduce the state's $500 billion shortfall. The unions have vowed to fight, and received a favorable interpretation of the ballot measure from Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris, who says state voter education materials would be required to say the measure would "eliminate constitutional protections for vested pension and retiree health care benefits for current public employees, including teachers, nurses and peace officers for future work performed."
Mayor Chuck Reed says he plans to file a lawsuit to correct what he considered the "inaccurate and misleading" ballot summary.