May 17, 2024
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Editorial: Measure M sets stage for urgent pension reform in SB County


Read Santa Barbara County’s proposed 2014-15 budget, and you will find a shocking fact: Pensions are so far under water that the county could deliver no services at all for a year and not make up the shortfall.

If our math is correct, pension costs will soak up roughly 13 percent, or $119.7 million, of the $903 million budgeted for the year beginning July 1. 

Despite that huge investment, pensions will remain roughly $800 million short of full funding — an amount that is more than the county’s entire non-pension costs for a year. And while the county says it will finish the year slightly in the black, soaring pensions costs were “the largest driver of recent budget gaps,” the document states.

Which is why Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam is on the right track with his Measure M ballot initiative, which comes before voters on June 3.

Measure M would force the county to stop deferring maintenance and infrastructure investments at the expense of salaries and ballooning retirement obligations. It would put millions of dollars to work on construction and paving, create jobs and foster a growth-oriented attitude, particularly in the Santa Maria Valley and Lompoc. 

Measure M faces spirited opposition from the South Coast’s slow-growth crowd, which, among other things, is addicted to well-heeled pensioners supporting the low to middle end of the housing market.

But Measure M comes with a couple of major caveats. First, by most accounts, it’s actually not possible, so far, for the voters alone to overturn the county’s contractual obligations to employees — for pensions or pay hikes. Second, it would not make sense for the county to jeopardize its AA credit rating by putting debt payments, health care and other obligations at risk.

Measure M, if it passes, is a good first step toward re-prioritizing Santa Barbara County’s budget. But without meaningful pension reform that caps payouts, creates a defined contribution plan for most employees and brings down annual obligations, finding the money to pay for Measure M will be difficult.

To its credit, the pension board has junked its 8.16 percent projected annual return in favor of a 7.5 percent return. County CEO Mona Miyasato’s report says it is unlikely annual costs will skyrocket the way they did several years ago, and it suggests more “discretionary revenue” will be available in future years. 

The bottom line is that even if it passes, Measure M may be followed by what might be called Measure P. 

Ventura County voters will give rigorous pension reform a serious test come November with a proposal to convert the county’s pension program to a 401(k)-style defined contribution system. If that effort passes, it will give some momentum to reforms in the rest of the region.