Many SB County retirees receive generous pensions
09:42 PM PDT on Saturday, July 9, 2011
The Press-Enterprise

The San Bernardino County Employees’ Retirement Association has 446 retirees who receive more than $100,000 a year in pension benefits, with some getting more than their salary when they were part of the workforce, according to newly released records.

The retirement association, an independent agency overseeing the county’s pension fund, provided the data to The Press-Enterprise on Friday, after losing a yearlong legal battle over the release of the records.

Those who draw pensions of more than $100,000 a year represent five percent of the beneficiaries but receive 22 percent — about $60 million — of the annual benefits paid by the agency. That includes some other agencies that are part of the SBCERA system, although county retirees make up the vast majority.

At least 24 of the top pension earners, make an average of $60,000 a year more in retirement than they earned when they were working, according to a comparison with salary data on the county website.

For instance, former Undersheriff Richard Beemer — who receives the highest pension — gets $290,902 a year, about $96,000 a year more than the current maximum salary for that position with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.

According to the SBCERA website, retirement benefits are calculated on a formula that includes factors such as age at retirement, years of service and the highest 12 months of “earnable compensation” for that position.

Earnable compensation includes the base salary plus other factors that can vary according to department and employee contracts. Some common benefits that can count toward a public employee’s pension include car and uniform allowances, on-call pay for public safety employees and accumulated vacation time that is cashed out when an employee retires.

County spokesman David Wert said an employee’s salary is only considered a portion of one’s earnings.

San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford, who sits on the retirement board, said the pension system needs to be reformed.

“We have designed and evolved into an absolutely crazy system where spiking your pension is considered normal and acceptable and you’d be laughed at if you didn’t do that,” she said. “We have to change that.”

San Bernardino County has seen rising pension costs in the past year due to recent investment losses, benefit increases during boom years and a growing number of retirees.

Wert said the county’s retirement obligations will increase dramatically over the next five years. In 2010-11, the amount was $6 million. For 2011-2012, it will grow to $23.6 million and then to $43.5 million and $66.5 million the next two years. By 2014-2015, the county’s costs will escalate to $85.1 million.

Wert said the county is seeking ways to drive down pension costs by scaling back benefits. As part of the fiscal 2011-2012 budget, the county asked employees to fund a portion of their retirement contribution that is now paid by the county. But the two biggest employee unions have not agreed to do so.

The county also wants to create a multi-tiered system in which newer employees would get reduced benefits, but state law does not allow the county to create different retirement formulas for different bargaining units at different times, Wert said. The challenge is that different employee contracts come up for renewal at different times, he said.

Auditor/Controller/Treasurer/Tax-Collector Larry Walker, who sits on the retirement board, said the county is restricted in many cases by state law and court decisions in setting retirement formulas.

“I think a good argument can be made that pensions based on salary, experience and age are a pretty solid foundation, but those extra things that cause major extras, I think those are the things that need to be looked at,” Walker said.

The data shows that San Bernardino County has almost four times as many employees with pensions in the six figures compared to Riverside County. According to data provided last year, Riverside County has 87 retirees with pensions at $100,000 or higher, while San Bernardino has 385 retirees receiving benefits at that range.

Wert said he could not say why there’s a difference without analyzing the data, which he said he had not seen.

Marcia Fritz, president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, which advocates rolling back government pensions, said non-CalPERS retirement systems such as San Bernardino’s seem to offer sweeter retirement packages.

There is no good reason why San Bernardino County should have so many more $100,000-plus retirees than Riverside County, a county of similar size that is part of the CalPERS system, Fritz said.

“What I’ve found is that if there is a difference from CalPERS, then it’s the other systems that are more generous. I’ve never seen it go the other way,” Fritz said. “There’s less scrutiny, there’s more…of a good-old boy network going on. It makes it less likely that they say no.”

Representatives of public-employee groups say most government retirees receive much smaller pensions.

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