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10:19 PM PDT on Sunday, October 10, 2010
By DUANE W. GANG
The campaign over two competing pension measures on Riverside County’s November ballot already has cost more than $500,000 as both sides accuse one another of trying to mislead voters.
Measure L, backed by the Riverside Sheriff’s Association, would prohibit the county from changing pension benefits for public safety employees without a vote of the electorate.
Known as the Public Safety and Taxpayer Protection Act, the measure also would safeguard the benefits for family members of officers who die in the line of duty.
Fearing that the measure, if approved, could make it more difficult for supervisors to manage county finances, the board voted to put a competing question before voters.
Their version, Measure M, would require a public vote only to increase pension benefits for public safety employees. It would protect survivor benefits by requiring a public vote to decrease them.
The measure would allow supervisors to decrease retirement benefits without first going to the polls.
The sheriff’s union has contributed more than $538,000 — the sole funding source — to the Yes on Measure L campaign, which in turn has spent $459,253 so far, campaign finance records show.
The Yes on Measure L campaign has focused predominantly on persuading voters to protect survivor benefits and criticizing Supervisor Bob Buster, a proponent of pension reform.
Buster and at least two other elected officials have said the Yes on Measure L campaign literature is inaccurate and dishonest.
Meanwhile, the Yes on M campaign has raised $122,000, with contributions from Buster, Supervisor John Benoit and local business leaders. The campaign had spent more than $42,000 through Sept. 30, records show.
The sheriff’s association has accused the Yes on M campaign of trying to deceive voters by blaming law enforcement for rising pension costs.
A retired deputy sheriff last month successfully challenged in court three phrases on a Measure M ballot argument.
The county has $6.12 billion in lifetime pension liabilities for its current employees and retirees. Of that, about $800 million remains unfunded.
With no changes, the county’s annual pension costs are projected to jump from $155 million this year to $306 million by fiscal 2019-2020, according to a recent county pension committee report.
As a result, all five county supervisors have said the current pension formulas are unsustainable and that a new, second tier with lower benefits is needed for newly hired employees.
On Sept. 14, supervisors voted unanimously to direct Bill Luna, county executive officer, to develop a second-tier pension plan in the next three months.
The sheriff’s association has long contended that the public safety portion of the county’s pension plan is not in trouble.
“The plan is well funded, stable and sustainable as is,” said Pat McNamara, the sheriff’s association president and chairman of the Yes on Measure L campaign.
The plan is 90 percent funded, McNamara said in response to written questions.
“When voters learn that the average deputy sheriff makes less than $35,000 in annual retirement and does not receive any Social Security for their time working for Riverside County, they become very supportive of Measure L,” he said.
The television ads and campaign literature sent out by the Yes on Measure L campaign have focused mostly on survivor benefits and to criticism of Buster. In five different mailers, for example, the campaign does not say that Measure L also would protect the pensions of public safety employees.
One Yes on Measure L mailer states that “Buster wants to balance the budget by cutting the Death Benefits paid to the widows and orphans of Firefighters and Deputy Sheriffs killed in the line of duty.”
As its source, the mailer cites an opinion article Buster wrote for The Press-Enterprise in February. In the article, Buster does not mention survivor benefits, or widows and orphans of fallen officers.
Buster did call for changes in the county’s pension plan and cited the U.S. military’s retirement plan, under which career soldiers receive what he said were “incentives to plan and invest in their own retirement.”
Buster said this week that neither he nor any other county official has sought to reduce survivor benefits.
“It’s a real unworthy thing of a professional group of public servants, particularly sheriff’s officers, to make this charge,” Buster said. “It is a flaming torch they are trying to pour into the campaign.”
Benoit said the sheriff’s association is trying to “deflect the argument away from the true objective to protect their pension system.”
A Yes on L mailer also says “Buster’s wasteful spending helped put taxpayers $2.5 billion in debt,” and cites the Riverside County auditor-controller’s office as the source.
The information comes from the auditor’s 26-page financial highlights book, which states that the debt includes bonds, certificates of participation, loans and capital leases.
Auditor-Controller Robert Byrd said in an interview that the mailer takes the information out of context.
The $2.5 billion figure, for instance, includes bonds issued to meet cash flow demands and pay for public improvement projects, Byrd said.
“No one supervisor can do anything by himself,” Byrd said.
McNamara said the campaign can back up all the information in the literature.
“Bob Buster has publicly and privately advocated for a 401K style of retirement plan for deputies, which as you know does NOT provide for survivor benefits or a safety net for safety officers who are injured in the line of duty,” McNamara wrote.
In an interview, Buster said a defined benefit plan for public safety employees remains the option he favors.
McNamara also said the use of the county’s debt figure is in context.
“If this information is factually wrong and misleading, then why did the Auditor-Controller’s Office put this in the report?” McNamara questioned.
In ballot arguments in favor of Measure M, supporters said that the sheriff’s union “refuses to change its gold-plated pensions, which have saddled county taxpayers with over $6 billion in debt.”
In addition, the arguments stated union members can retire with $195,000 a year and that Measure M’s reforms would “apply equally to all county employees, administrators and members of the Board of Supervisors.”
Ruben Rasso, a retired deputy and sheriff’s association member, challenged the arguments in court. Superior Court Judge Bernard Schwartz last month struck down portions of the Measure M arguments
The $6 billion in pension debt is for all current workers and retirees, not just public safety employees, and only those with 30 years of service and in the highest ranks of the Sheriff’s Department can retire with $195,000 in pension benefits.
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