09:13 PM PDT on Tuesday, October 12, 2010

By JON COUPAL

How would you like to invest just $9,000 for a return of $2 million or more over 30 years? Sound too good to be true? It’s not if you are a member of the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association.

This sweet deal is funded by taxpayers and the sheriff’s deputies union is looking to guarantee that nothing changes. That’s why union officials put Measure L on the ballot and are backing it with an expensive and misleading campaign.

The goal of the union is to remove the power of the Board of Supervisors to ever modify this lavish pension benefit for current or future employees, but that’s not what they are telling the public. Like the magician who uses his wand to direct his audience’s attention away from where the actual trick is taking place, the union’s ad campaign says that Measure L is to protect widows and orphans, without ever mentioning its real objective, which is to protect its exceptionally generous taxpayer funded pension plan.

Consider this; under the existing plan a newly hired deputy contributes 9 percent of his salary toward retirement — but only for the first three years of his career. After three years he contributes nothing. County taxpayers pay all the rest.

In 1993 a new deputy earned about $32,800 a year. His 9 percent contribution equaled about $3,000 a year — about $9,000 total over three years.

If our model deputy works 30 years, he or she will likely be earning a base salary of about $80,000 at retirement in 2023. Under the 90 percent at age 50 formula, he would receive a $72,300 a year pension. If he is 52 when he retires, and lives to be 82, he will have been paid about $2,160,000 in retirement, and that is before the 2 percent a year inflation adjustment.

If our hypothetical deputy does well and promotes through the ranks, the picture changes dramatically. A high-ranking Riverside sheriff’s official recently retired with a $259,000-a-year pension. If she enjoys an average lifespan, she will collect $7,770,000 in retirement over 30 years. Even more, after adding in automatic inflation adjustments.

A sheriff’s deputy puts his or her life on the line. We need to offer competitive compensation to attract well-qualified individuals for this challenging profession, and we need to ensure their widows and orphans are well cared for if tragedy strikes. But the union knows its current pension plan is the most generous around. It will do or say anything to protect it. And union officials know that given current economic conditions, a responsible Board of Supervisors will want to change it for newly hired personnel.

Throughout the state, agencies are moving to change the retirement plans for new hires and ask current employees to contribute more. For instance, CHP employees have historically contributed 6 to 8 percent of their monthly salary toward retirement. CHP employee contributions were just raised to 10 percent, for their entire career, not just for three years.

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