By Geoff Dean
An initiative currently being circulated in Ventura County for the November ballot seeking to close the pension system to newly hired county employees as a way of saving money is both simplistic and wrong.
I believe it is important that if we are asking the voters to decide such a critical issue, they are given the current, accurate facts so they can make an educated, unemotional decision. First, let me start by saying this proposal will have little or no impact on me personally. My concern is for the future and the future services provided to our communities.
In the wake of the market collapse of 2008 and resulting recession, most reasonable minds recognized that for the sake of long-term sustainability, some changes had to be made to the public-employee retirement systems.
The current systems had evolved over the years through contract negotiations and court decisions. But the high pensions the new local initiative claims to stop were already addressed by the state Legislature when it enacted pension changes beginning in January 2013 for public employees throughout California, including Ventura County employees.
As a result of these changes and additional changes put in place by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, retirement salary computations were reduced by 36 percent for general employees and 47 percent for safety employees. Closing the retirement system to new members, as the initiative proposes to do, would prevent these savings from ever being realized.
What is noteworthy about the backers of this pension initiative is that they claim the initiative will result in cost-savings, but have yet to produce an actuarial study or report of any kind backing up that assertion. It is very likely that taxpayers of Ventura County will be paying substantially more money into the current pension system should this initiative appear on the ballot and pass.
Voters in San Diego were also promised similar savings in 2012 if they passed an initiative closing the pension plan to new employees. The result: San Diego taxpayers are now paying tens of millions of dollars more into the pension system because they passed the initiative.
Similar results have occurred in the states of Alaska and Michigan, where closing the pension systems to new employees has resulted in millions of dollars in additional costs, not savings, for those states.
Nine separate states and the city of New York have examined and rejected closing their respective defined-benefit pension systems. After study and debate, it was determined that closing the pension system would not save money, but instead would be more costly than continuing with the existing pension system.
A recent guest column which appeared in the Ventura County Star was quick to point out the retirement “outliers” and examples of generous pensions under the old retirement system. Initiative supporters claim past abuses of the pension system are a reason to block new employees from joining the pension system.
However, such potential abuses were eliminated for new employees by state legislation and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012. Those changes included: capping the total amount of pensionable income, increasing the retirement age for new employees, mandating new employees pay half of the yearly contribution into the retirement system, and eliminating spiking by basing pensions on base salary only. It is a disservice to the public for those who are funding and promoting this new local initiative to omit these facts.
It is important to note that Ventura County has a stand-alone retirement system. A retirement system, I might add, in a county with millions of dollars in reserves and the highest-possible bond rating, due in part to taking a hard line on employee pensions.
Having failed to present any current facts to support their initiative, the backers are hoping that emotions stirred up by past outliers will carry the day. They argue that public employees should not have pensions, because many in the private sector do not have pensions. It’s worth noting that they don’t claim this will result in more retirement security for new employees.
There are no reasons to enact an initiative that could dramatically raise costs for taxpayers and claims to fix abuses that have already been addressed.
The proposed ballot measure to eliminate defined pension plans for new employees and force them into 401(k)-style plans has many other flaws. However, I do find it interesting that supporters never argue that the plan is better for the participant. Instead, the argument is that pension plans are unaffordable and eliminating them will save the employer money — which is yet to be substantiated and has had just the opposite effect in many other locales.
In terms of public safety, eliminating an already reduced retirement system and isolating Ventura County employees from other public employees would severely impact my ability to recruit and retain the most qualified people. Currently in the Sheriff’s Office, for every 100 people who apply to the department, only one succeeds in graduating from the Sheriff’s Academy. This recruitment and retention struggle occurs now, even with us being on fairly equal pension and compensation footing with other agencies in the area and in the state. I don’t know about you, but I want the best people I can get to keep our communities safe.
Similar recruitment and retention concerns were shared by our district attorney and fire chief in a recent newspaper article. In that same article, one of the change proponents was reported as saying the county can work out the hiring issues. I say, we already have enough bad laws whose end results were not well thought out.
I urge all county residents not to sign the petition that would put a dangerous plan on the ballot. Instead, make the effort to get the real facts surrounding this issue.
• Geoff Dean is the sheriff of Ventura County.