After more than two years of private negotiations between Orange County’s deputy sheriff’s union and county supervisors, a tense split has emerged among supervisors–with allegations of pension spiking–just as they prepare to publicly vote Tuesday on a two-year wage and benefit package.
At issue is whether deputy sheriffs should be offered a salary hike and other concessions to compensate for requiring them to pay more into their pensions. No other employee group that had their contract up this recent negotiations cycle – called the Super Bowl of labor talks – has been granted such an offset.
Given the county’s rising unfunded pension liability – now past the $5 billion mark – supervisors had stated the goal of these negotiations was to have all workers pay their full employee share of the pension. That aim was imposed on managers and most recently, county attorneys – even county supervisors themselves.
Yet there’s a different approach toward public safety.
Supervisors’ Chairman Shawn Nelson and John Moorlach are both slamming the deal that was ratified by rank and file deputies just before the July 4 holiday, saying it’s as close to a pension spike as they’ve seen because it increases deputy salaries (fueling larger pensions) and shifts responsibility for rising retiree medical costs to the county.
“Picking up the retiree medical is about as close as you can get to a 3@50 system,” said Moorlach referring to the retirement package that allows deputies to retire at age 50 and accrue 3 percent of pay for each year worked. For many deputies who started work at an early age, the benefit allows them to retire with as much as 90 percent of their pay.
“I don’t’ think this is equitable in the scheme of all the other contracts we’ve approved,” Moorlach said.
Meanwhile, Supervisor Todd Spitzer – a strong supporter of sheriffs’ deputies and a likely future candidate for district attorney – is firing right back at Nelson and Moorlach saying they supported deal points privately but are now blasting the offer in public.
Spitzer said supervisors in March agreed unanimously in closed session with the concept that increased pension responsibilities would be matched with salary hikes, as has been done in other jurisdictions.
“I’m flabbergasted they are not admitting they were supportive of an offset,” Spitzer said.
He argues it’s critical to offer deputy sheriffs a lucrative deal given the preeminent role public safety plays in local government and the possibility that deputies will switch to agencies that pay better.
While Nelson said he recognizes the special role of public safety, “I don’t love them anymore than the rest of my family.”
Nelson said he disagrees with offsetting the requirement of full pension pickups with salary hikes because that wasn’t offered to any other unionized worker.
“It becomes pension spiking to do it this way,” Nelson said. “That was the whole point to not do it this way.”
Sitting silently in the wings are the two deciding votes – Supervisors Janet Nguyen and Pat Bates.
Neither returned a call seeking comment.
Nguyen is locked in a heated State Senate election this November and is reportedly seeking support from the deputy’s union. Bates – who faces a write-in candidate in November for a less competitive Senate seat – has in the past received important campaign support from the deputies union.
Moorlach said the board majority supporting the deal doesn’t appreciate how it will impact future county budgets adding, “I don’t think they understand the fiscal repercussions of what has been approved.”
Under the proposed labor pact, deputies would be granted an across-the-board raise of three percent next year. Senior deputies would be rewarded with supervisors creating two new categories that would allow those already topped out at salary to get a 5.5 percent raise in 2015.
In addition, the county would reduce deputies’ contribution to their retiree medical by one percent and increase payments to the deputies’ medical trust – which pays for current health care coverage administered by the union.
In exchange, the union agreed to have entry-level deputies paid less and have current deputies immediately contribute an additional two percent to their required employee pension payments.
By 2015, deputies would be responsible for paying 100 percent of their employee share for their pension benefit. That would be a significant spike from their current payment of about 5 percent.
Thus, in exchange for an 8.5 percent salary hike, deputies’ take-home pay could drop by an estimated 14-20 percent once higher pension contributions kick in.
That is something that few in law enforcement are doing, said Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.
“We have spent the last two years trying to negotiate a contract with the very real threat of our members losing thousands of dollars a year out of their paychecks hanging over our heads,” Dominguez said. “While other Orange County law enforcement agencies have agreed to positive contracts that include significant pay increases, our Board of Supervisors demanded from the very beginning that every deputy sheriff and district attorney investigator once again pay 100 percent of their employee retirement contribution. Our members have accepted that fact.
“Unfortunately, picking up 100 percent retirement contribution means our members will be forced to pay between 14 and 20 percent of their salary toward their pension by next July – substantially more than any other police officer in Orange County.”
Spitzer said holding deputies to an unusually high standard on the pension issue could backfire on the County of Orange because many of the best deputies could leave for other places. He and the deputy’s union both point to a $180,000 cost to replace deputies as a real fiscal threat that can impact the general fund in a real way.
Yet Nelson said the current deal doesn’t match fiscal realities and will blow a hole in the county budget.
“I don’t blame the sheriff’s union in any of this,” he said. “I understand their perspective. I’m not mad at them. It’s their job to ask for an offset. I just have financial realities that suggest that’s not available right now. And if it is, I should be consistent with everyone. They’re already treated better than everyone else when it comes to retirement.”
You can reach Norberto Santana Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @NorbertoSantana.