Re: Mike Powers' July 29 commentary, "County tackling pension and budget challenges":
It is important to focus on facts when discussing public pensions. Low average pension figures are a smoke screen and it's disappointing Mike Powers, county executive officer, and many supervisors frequently talk about the low average pension.
The average pension is always low because it includes retirees who worked less than a career with the county, as little as five years, and also retirees and their survivors who retired decades ago when the pension system was reasonable.
These are some of the facts we need to focus on. Ventura County pays some of the highest pensions of any county in California. These extremely high pensions are not paid to the average employee, they are paid to the county's top managers in the coveted benefit levels 1 and 2, elected officials and the safety employees.
The county is currently paying out pensions at the rate of $173 million a year. This is up from $80 million less than 10 years ago.
The number of retirees with pensions over $200,000 a year has doubled in the last two years. Ventura County has more retirees receiving this absurd amount than any other county and quite likely more than all the others combined.
The unfunded liability of the pension fund has now reached the $1 billion level. It was $761 million two years ago.
The supervisors and the CEO are examples of public officials living in denial.
They understate the pension problem and fiscal risks faced by the county while simultaneously turning aside calls for reform.
Instead of addressing pension abuse by top members of county government, CEO Powers and the supervisors blame the courts for changing the rules, the state for cuts in funding, the economy for not recovering. Never do they blame management — and themselves — for protecting the status quo.
There is a shortlist of changes they could take to drastically reduce pension spiking: Phasing out the county pickup of an employee's contribution to the pension fund; eliminate the unique and absurd education policy that exists only to maximize compensation for employees but does not meet any county need; get control of the excessive use of overtime to spike compensation and pensions.
As an example of compensation abuse, we discovered that 29 fire captains and firefighters were paid in excess of $200,000 last year — largely the result of overtime.
One of those fire captains retired in March. In 2011, he set a county record earning $113,000 in overtime, more than doubling his base salary. He could do this simply because management allowed him to.
Now, the retired former fire captain receives an annual pension of $146,304 which is 46 percent higher than his last base salary. This is a product of the system that county management and the Board of Supervisors seem so intent on preserving.
Astoundingly, in a major move away from transparency, the county pension board is now refusing to release details of how his $100,000 base salary was spiked into a $146,000 pension. Can they really believe that the public has no right to know?
It's not surprising that supervisors have been slow to change county pension systems. Politically powerful unions play a major role in maintaining the county's unjustifiably generous pension system. However, members of top management and the Board of Supervisors often have an even greater interest in the current system — their own generous retirement packages.
As county taxpayers confront the crushing cost of pension promises, Ventura County Taxpayers Association (VCTA) asks supervisors to quit shifting the blame and put pension reform at the center of the public agenda — before it becomes a crisis that requires savage cuts in service.
David P. Grau is the chairman of Ventura County Taxpayers Association board of directors. Kevin McAtee and Randy Hinton are VCTA board members.