Ventura County’s penchant for pension spiking has gone nationwide. It has caught the critical eye of AARP’s monthly bulletin, an influential publication seen by millions.
We can debate the fairness AARP’s article attacking Ventura County, which is one of the better funded pension plans in the state. And, as the article points out, most who join the county workforce after January won’t have such luxuries.
But the fact that former CEO Marty Robinson retired with $272,000 a year in annual payouts when she earned roughly $50,000 less than that her last year on the job underscores a problem that affects all of us. Robinson, a career county employee, was legally able to gross up her pay with vacation benefits and other perks.
The AARP article shows that we are now watching a painful collision of two planets — inhabited by entirely different sorts of creatures.
On Planet Pension, public servants have abandoned the tradeoff of lower pay for guaranteed work and benefits. Instead, it has built a perpetual benefits time machine. Without limits on pensions, everybody can retire on a cushy monthly salary.
The problem with Planet Pension is that a public servant who retires at 55 with a $250,000 pension will be collecting something like $500,000 a year a couple of decades later thanks to cost-of-living increases. And eventually the money will run out.
Alternatively, there is Planet 401(k), where most of the rest of us live. It is a hard place, where only those with luck and nerves of steel can squirrel away enough money and ride the ups and downs of the stock market to retire in any sort of luxury. Kids’ college tuition and weddings must be paid for without tapping a 401(k), a difficult goal to accomplish.
And of course there is no job security and no guarantee of cost-of-living raises.
What has vectored Planet Pension truly out of control is a deadly pact between public servants, environmental groups and NIMBYs who have gone to great lengths to keep housing prices high. That means getting a pension of $150,000 or more is de rigueur if you want to keep your boat and collector car and pay off a mortgage in an expensive coastal community.
Aligned with Planet 401(k) are small-business owners, plus tax watchdogs who have painted a very partisan brush on the Planet 401k agenda. But the AARP article could be a dramatic breakthrough for Planet 401k. If AARP and other senior organizations, educators and affordable housing advocates begin an organized pushback against the toll that Planet Pension takes on school funding, elder services and the renting class, that could be a powerful tool to overturning one of California’s biggest problems.