February 7th, 2011, 4:46 pm · posted by Kimberly Edds, Staff Writer
The Orange County Board of Supervisors will vote in closed session Tuesday whether to take their fight to overturn the county’s generous “3 percent at 50″ pension plan for sheriff’s deputies to the state Supreme Court.
It took just a week for justices for the Second Appellate District in Los Angeles to side with the sheriff’s union, agreeing the pension plan’s benefits do not violate the state constitution. The decision leaves the county holding the bill for millions of dollars in long-term retirement debt.
“The County emphasizes its current difficult financial situation and the ‘ruinous fiscal irresponsibility’ of the prior board of supervisors,” read the 29-page appellate opinion issued Jan. 26.
“Imprudence, however, is not unconstitutional.”
Now the county will have to consider the chance of succeeding in the state Supreme Court and getting a final answer against its ever-growing legal bills. The county has already spent $2.26 million as of July 2010 pursuing the lawsuit, according to documents provided in response to a California Public Records Act request. But winning the lawsuit could save the county as much as $500 million, Moorlach has said.
If the county loses, it could be on the hook for the legal bills racked up by the deputies’ union to fight the suit.It was just a passing reference on Board of Supervisors Vice Chair John Moorlach’s wish list for the year, but his wish spoke volumes.
“I’m looking forward to the supreme court hearing our retroactive pension lawsuit,” Moorlach told his fellow supervisors at last week’s board meeting, squeezing in the wish between annexation projects.
Moorlach may not be giving up his fight against the deputies’ pensions, but the county hasn’t yet decided whether to fight on or throw in the towel.
That decision will be up to the five county supervisors – and with local governments closely watching the situation, their decision could have consequences that reach far beyond Orange County.
“We’ve gone this far,” said Supervisor Shawn Nelson. “If you didn’t get a final answer, did you leave something inconclusive?”
The County of Orange sued the association in 2008, trying to pull back the so-called “3 percent at 50″ benefit, which allows deputies who have worked for 30 years to retire at age 50 with 90 percent of their salaries. County supervisors signed off on the benefit in 2001, despite warnings that the good economic times would not last forever.
Seven years later, the Board of Supervisors –- made up with some new members — determined granting retroactive benefits violated state law, because retiring public safety employees were paid extra compensation for work they had already performed. The county also argues it was illegal, because it spent money without voter approval.
The county sued. It was Mario Mainero, formerly Moorlach’s chief of staff, who led the war cry for the county to file the suit against the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.
Mainero, who left the county in May to teach law at Chapman Law School, has been hired back by the county to continue its fight against the deputies’ lucrative pension benefits.
County Chief Executive Officer Tom Mauk hired Mainero in December for $75 an hour.
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