Riverside County’s board says delays would be costly; the sheriff wanted time to study the effects on recruiting if employees pay more

BY JEFF HORSEMAN
STAFF WRITER
jhorseman@pe.com

Published: 19 June 2012 09:17 PM

After months of sometimes rocky talks with organized labor, Riverside County supervisors moved to reduce county pensions for new employees despite concerns from the sheriff, who wanted more time to consider how those changes would affect his ability to recruit and retain deputies.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, June 19, voted 4-0 with John Benoit absent to submit an amendment to the county’s contract with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. The amendment allows for reduced pension benefits for newly hired employees and deputies.

County officials have long sought changes to public pension benefits they deemed unsustainable, especially given the county’s shaky finances. Supervisors’ desire for pension reform led to disputes with the county’s labor unions.

One of the largest unions, Service Employees International Union Local 721, staged a one-day strike in February to protest benefit cuts and to force the county back to the bargaining table. The county last November imposed contract terms on SEIU members, including a requirement that they pay more toward their retirement.

Eventually, SEIU and most of the county’s other unions agreed to contracts that traded pension reform for pay raises. Members also have to contribute more toward their pensions.

Pension changes also come as voters statewide express their frustration with public retirement benefits deemed too costly for taxpayers. By wide margins, voters in the June 5 primary approved pension cuts for city workers in San Jose and San Diego.

Under Riverside County’s new system, regular employees will be entitled to an annual pension equal to 2 percent of their salaries times years of service once they reach age 60. Right now, employees enjoy a 3 percent at 60 formula, while the current deputies’ formula is 3 percent at 50.

For new deputies, the formula will be 2 percent at age 50. Deputies retiring at age 55 can multiply their years of service by 2.7 percent of their annual pay. To get 90 percent of their final salary, 55-year-old deputies will need 33.3 years’ service.

Of the 45 deputies who retired last year, 20 did so before age 51, according to county Human Resources Director Barbara Olivier.

But Sheriff Stan Sniff asked supervisors to hold off finalizing pension reform until his department could assess the pension changes’ effect on staffing. While he said he supports reforming pension, Sniff cautioned the board against acting too quickly.

The new benefits “put me at a strategic disadvantage” with other police agencies when it comes to attracting new deputies, Sniff said. The county runs the risk of becoming a taxpayer-funded “training ground” for deputies who start here, only to leave for agencies with better benefits, he said, adding the new pensions will discourage lateral transfers of experienced police to the county.

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