10:00 PM PST on Friday, February 25, 2011

Cassie MacDuff

A new appointment to the San Bernardino County retirement board signals the county is serious about curbing pension costs.

The fund faces a $115 million deficit over the next five years due to investment losses and increasing payouts to retirees.

Several long-serving board members have been replaced in the past year as county leaders sought a philosophical shift. Now, more new blood is coming.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will receive the resignation of Supervisor Gary Ovitt from the retirement board and consider appointing Supervisor Janice Rutherford.

Ovitt is leaving because of scheduling conflicts. He represents San Bernardino County on the Southern California Association of Governments, which meets at the same time as the retirement board.

In a phone interview Friday, he told me he had tried to divide his time between the two boards but realized he needs to give his full attention to the regional body.

He has missed half the retirement board meetings since joining July 1.

Ovitt’s seat must remain vacant 10 days to allow people time to apply.

Rutherford will fill a vacancy created last September when Board of Retirement trustee Christopher Leggio stepped down.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Josie Gonzales said Leggio’s seat was kept vacant to allow a new board chair, elected last month, to select the appointee.

Gonzales chose Rutherford because the former Fontana councilwoman has emerged as an advocate for pension reform.

I reached Rutherford in Sacramento on Friday where she was attending new supervisor training at the California State Association of Counties. She said getting pension obligations under control is one of the county’s highest priorities, because the deficit is growing.

The first issue she will tackle is certain to stir protests from retirees: ending a discretionary subsidy of up to $230 a month the retirement board has doled out from “excess earnings.”

When investments perform better than an 8 percent benchmark, earnings have been deemed “excess” and put in a pool originally intended to help retirees pay health-insurance premiums.

The health care subsidy ended in 1994-95, but the retirement board revived it as a general subsidy in 1996.

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