10:00 PM PDT on Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Cassie MacDuff

The San Bernardino County Board of Retirement will catch a political hot potato today, considering whether to eliminate a retiree subsidy or help the county out of a fiscal crunch.

County leaders contend that if the discretionary subsidy isn’t discontinued, as many as 89 employees will have to be laid off.

The subsidy — as much as $230 a month — is not a vested benefit, so the board isn’t required to give it to the retirees.

But it has been in place almost continuously since 1979, and retirees have come to rely on it to help defray high health-insurance costs.

Richard Kelley, a retired Child Protective Services supervisor, said losing the $230 will be a hardship for him and his wife, who has undergone cancer treatment.

As it is, the Kelleys can afford only the “low option” the county offers with HealthNet, for which they pay a $1,925.37 monthly premium, Kelley wrote in a letter to county supervisors and the retirement board.

Kelley retired in 2004 after 29 years with the county. He now lives in Happy Jack, Ariz. In the letter, he pleaded with the board not to take away the subsidy.

Thomas J. Low, who worked for the county 34 years, said ending the subsidy would have a profound impact on his family but help the county only minimally.

Millie Bronson, a retired probation officer now living in Las Cruces, N.M., said she and many other county retirees use the income to pay for necessities like medications.

Bronson, who retired in 1999, said retirees knew the subsidy wouldn’t last forever but expected it to continue until the funds ran out (now estimated for late 2013).

At an administrative committee meeting last month, the trustees deadlocked 2-2 on the issue.

Now the full, nine-member retirement board must consider it. The trustees will have to weigh whether they owe their allegiance to the retirees, or to the county.

The Board of Supervisors will be watching, count on it.

The supervisors grappled Tuesday with a $122.5 million deficit, voting to reduce health and retirement benefits for management employees to save $5.1 million.

If the subsidy is discontinued, it will save the county $2.9 million a year for the next 20 years. Expect discussion to be vigorous.

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