It is looking more and more like Ventura County voters will decide in November whether to scrap the county’s current pension system and replace it with a defined-contribution plan similar to 401(k) programs commonly used in the private sector.
Backers of the ballot initiative led by the Committee for Pension Fairness and Fourth District Supervisor Peter Foy delivered 40,500 petitions to the county on April 23, roughly 50 percent more than the number required to certify the measure for the ballot.
While county officials review the petitions, a county-funded study to explore whether a big shift in pensions would save taxpayer money is not yet complete. It will be watched closely by public-employee unions and pension reformers as the debate about how best to shape the system unfolds. And there is little doubt that public pensions throughout the Tri-Counties need significant reforms. Although Ventura County has been fairly aggressive in eliminating spiking and curbing the sorts of abuses that could lead to the Bell-like scandals and statewide reforms, pensions are a gobbling up ever increasing pieces of local tax revenue.
Because of overly aggressive assumptions about investment gains and generous raises given to public employees, pension payments are making up bigger and bigger chunks of operating budgets. And while retirees such as former Ventura County Sheriff Bob Brooks are suing to add more money to a pension that already amounts to $280,000 per year, most new employees aren’t going to get a big windfall. Some thoughts going forward:
• Pension reform is necessary, but transition rules will have to be clear and fair. The best argument in favor of a 401(k)-style system is that retirees actually get to create an estate and pass it along to heirs rather than collect a pension that vanishes when they and their spouse pass away.
• Ventura County is at the leading edge of something that should become a broader movement. Its pension reforms will simply lead to a brain drain if they are not followed by similar shifts in large cities such as Oxnard and Simi Valley or wealthy communities like Thousand Oaks.
We’ve been in a vicious cycle where public employee wages and benefits have outstripped those in the private sector, creating a pernicious housing bubble and built-in inefficiencies. The old paradigm that public employees got lower pay but better benefits has been broken for years. In too many communities in our region, public employees are able to afford homes because they are earning above-average wages while the private sector struggles with low wages and high housing costs.