Ratcheting Up the Pension Debate

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The Orange County Employees Retirement System’s release late last week of former county employees bringing down more than $100,000 a year in pensions has reignited the long-running debate about the costs of public sector retirement benefits in Orange County.

The long-awaited release of these numbers has top-tier execs, elected officials, deputies and firefighters facing hard questions about how much — or how little — they contribute toward the monthly payments to fund the retirement system.

The list, which was first published by Voice of OC last Wednesday, includes payouts of nearly $20,000 a month to former Sheriff Mike Carona, former Assistant Sheriff Charlie Walters, and Gary Streed, the former finance director of the county’s sanitation district.

The Orange County Register, which pursued the list in courts along with a watchdog group called the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, also published an item and is preparing a searchable database.

“Finally, the truth is out there,” said Orange County Employees Association General Manager Nick Berardino noting that the list of top earners is a virtual who’s-who of top government policymakers.

Berardino argues that though rank-and-file employees have had to pay into the pension system since a new formula was adopted in 2004, top-tier executives still do not. And he said he is tired of the rank and file getting all the heat for the county’s $3.3 billion unfunded liability.

Meanwhile, county CEO Tom Mauk, continues to accuse Berardino of demagoguery on the issue. “Nick needs to not keep separating groups. The pension problem is everybody’s problem,” Mauk said.

While Mauk is adament that he doesn’t want to focus on “different classes of Orange County employees” regarding how much they kick into their pensions, he reluctantly acknowledges that the publication of the OCERS list does put pressure on that end.

“I think what you would have to do is have different groups contributing different amounts out of their paycheck,” he said.

Mauk said he is not likely to support that option, yet the Board of Supervisors has asked him to come up with ideas, and that’s one of the main options out there.

“The board has challenged the staff to come up with some suggestions to deal with that in the short term because of the investment losses, costs are rising dramatically,” Mauk said.

Mauk said his staff and Berardino have worked productively in the past few years to come up with a series of reforms in addition to salary cuts and deferrals that includes creating a new pension benefit tier for new employees.

But, he warns, controlling pension costs will likely be achieved by a numerous number of adjustments, seen as “incremental.”


Correction: Due to an editing error, former Assistant Sheriff Charlie Walters was misidentified as John Chamberlain in an earlier version of this report.

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