Devereaux to ask board to up employees’ share
James Rufus Koren, Staff Writer
Posted: 04/04/2011 06:02:07 PM PDT

San Bernardino County is about to wade hip deep into the debate over public employee pensions.

Greg Devereaux, the county’s chief executive officer, will recommend today that the Board of Supervisors cut pension contributions for county employees – starting with Devereaux himself and other high-ranking staff – as part of a plan to shrink a coming budget deficit.

“The board of supervisors and I are asking the employees to understand we are at a crossroads as a county,” Devereaux said Monday. “We will either have to go to the public and say we’re going to cut services, including public safety, to unacceptable levels, or we will have to ask the employees to reduce their compensation.”

The rising cost of public pensions has been a hot topic in California and across the country. But while Republican lawmakers in Sacramento and in several Midwestern states have made headlines by calling for pension reform, few local jurisdictions have reduced benefits.

In a budget presentation last week, Devereaux said rising pension costs make up the largest chunk of a $122.5 million shortfall by the 2014-15 fiscal year. Between now and then, the county’s pension costs are expected to rise by $72 million, Devereaux said.

At today’s meeting, Devereaux will recommend that the county cut pension contributions, limit raises and change health benefits for exempt employees, who include board staff and high-ranking county administrators.

The biggest change will be asking county employees to pay more into their retirement plan.

Public pension plans call for a pension contribution from both the employer and the employee. But in many public agencies, employers pay all or part of the employee share on top of the employer share.

In San Bernardino County, the county pays the employer share, which is between 12.3 percent and 26.8 percent of an employee’s pay. The employee share is typically between 9 percent and 10 percent, and the county pays 7 percent for all employees, leaving employees to pay just 2 percent or 3 percent of their pay toward their retirement plan.

Devereaux is recommending employees pay their entire employee contribution, meaning a 7 percent pay cut.

“It is an economic reduction in compensation for exempt employees, it is something that is undesirable,” said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Josie Gonzales. “But in recognizing (that) it does not dilute the fact that it’s extremely important that we try to move forward and balance our budget.”

Asking employees to pay all of their pension contribution is not a novel idea, but it’s one few agencies have acted on. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown released a list of proposed pension reforms, including a measure that would prohibit public agencies from paying all or part of employees’ pension contributions.

Leaders in several San Bernardino County cities, including Chino and Montclair, have discussed the idea, but so far, Colton appears to be the only city that has made the change.

Last month, the Colton City Council approved deals with the police and fire unions that call for officers and firefighters to pay their full contributions.

Riverside County leaders on Monday discussed a measure that would make newly hired employees pay their full pension contributions.

It’s not clear, though, that Devereaux’s proposal will make it. The exempt employees who are the subject of Tuesday’s proposal aren’t represented by a union, but most county employees are. Getting those unions on board with a 7 percent pay cut could be dicey, even with Devereaux saying deep cuts are the only other option.

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