Orange County CEO Tom Mauk, left, and Orange County Employees Association General Manager Nick Berardino. (Photo credit: OCEA)

I got so much response from my first post about Orange County CEO Tom Mauk’s idea to change state law regarding pensions that I decided to hit him with some more questions on the topic.

A quick review: Mauk wants to pursue changes in state law which would allow the county to basically impose pension reform at the negotiating table with employee groups.

Typically, state law precludes any changes to a pension system that would impact benefits, the argument being that the retirement nature of the benefit can’t be fiddled with.

But Mauk feels that the amounts that employees contribute to their pension should be treated like a wage negotiation. The significance being that when negotiating wages, an employer can lawfully impose an offer when talks break down.

“It’s just my idea,” Mauk said, “that something ought to be pursued.”

Considering that in their latest negotiations with Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputies, county supervisors were only able to get deputies to contribute 1 percent this fiscal year toward their pension, few believe that employee groups — especially those as powerful as public safety — will willingly give away much more at the negotiating table.

Thus, Mauk’s idea.

“It all would be still subject to negotiation,” he said. “But if you go to impasse, pensions ought to be like wages. … If you reach impasse, you can impose an offer.”

Mauk said unions would still be engaged in negotiations and be able to present arguments and analysis as they do with wages. However, the threat that the county could ultimately impose changes would undoubtedly empower the county’s negotiating position.

“It’s such a huge dollar sum that it shouldn’t be exempt from the same negotiations and the impasse process that other economic issues like wages are,” he said.

Mauk said he expects to flesh out the idea with other county officials soon. “I’m thinking fairly broadly and would have to meet with (Orange County Employees Association General Manager) Nick (Berardino) and county counsel (Nick Chrisos) to refine the thought, but it’s definitely in my mind.”

Supervisor John Moorlach said such a change “would be nice.”

And it’s the kind of thinking on pensions that Orange County has led the state on, Moorlach said, stressing the cooperation of groups such as OCEA.

“That’s why when you see us adding new tiers (of retirement benefits), getting AOCDS (the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs) starting to withhold (paying more into the pension), it’s actually a big thing,” Moorlach said.

Yet Moorlach is doubtful that the Sacramento Legislature, dominated by Democrats, will listen to Republicans in Orange County.

“We know who runs Sacramento,” he said.

For his part, Berardino asked that Mauk be reminded that he could get the ball rolling on this issue with or without union support. He can impose such standards immediately on upper level executives because they are at-will employees.

The same executives that — as last week’s release by the Orange County Employees Retirement System showed — will be very well compensated by taxpayers in retirement.

“If the county is genuine in their interest, they can lead by example and have the executives paying the same amount as OCEA members, which can be done at the next board meeting,” Berardino said. “Let the executives show that it’s more than an idea.”


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