Arguing that the county pension system is too flawed to fix, a committee plans to ask voters to phase it out on the November ballot.
The Committee for Pension Fairness wants to slowly eliminate pensions for county government employees by requiring all new employees hired after July 1, 2015, to go into a 401(k)-style plan.
“We cannot make tweaks to the current system,” attorney and committee member Jim McDermott said Tuesday.
Committee members said the measure would:
require the county as the employer to contribute 4 percent of base salary for civilian employees into a 401(k)-style plan. The figure would be 11 percent for sworn safety employees, including sheriff’s deputies and firefighters. Death and disability benefits for public safety officers would be guaranteed.
direct the Ventura County Board of Supervisors to freeze the compensation that counts for pensions for five years, a measure that would apply to existing employees. The board could by majority vote overrule that direction.
require new officeholders in county office, including the Board of Supervisors, to participate in 401(k) plans instead of pensions.
McDermott said government employees should not receive retirement benefits any better or worse than those in the private sector. Private companies have largely abandoned pensions, which provide lifetime retirement checks, in favor of 401(k) plans that do not provide guaranteed benefits. Nor, he said, is the current system sustainable.
County officials and a union executive disagreed.
“What’s the advantage of putting government employees into a system where they have no retirement security?” Rick Shimmel, executive director of the union representing deputy sheriffs, said Tuesday. “Are you going to do that because private corporations have done that to their employees?”
County Executive Mike Powers and Steve Bennett, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said the measure could undermine hiring.
“My concern is that it would put us at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting and retaining talented employees,” Powers said.
The committee is composed of about 10 people, most of them board members of the Ventura County Taxpayers Association, spokesman David Grau said. Organizers formed a separate committee to campaign for the initiative for legal reasons, said Dick Thomson, president of the taxpayers association and a member of the committee.
Language of the ballot measure had not been finalized as of Tuesday, but committee members plan to file the proposed initiative Wednesday at the Ventura County elections office. They need to collect about 26,000 signatures of registered voters to qualify the measure for the ballot, but Thomson said the organization is shooting for 36,000.
He anticipated that the task would start in February and be completed by May 5. The deadline to file signatures is May 16, Assistant Registrar of Voters Tracy Saucedo said.
The county’s $4 billion, 16,000-member county pension system is 79 percent funded, according to the latest actuarial report. The unfunded liability totaled $953 million at the end of the last fiscal year.
Some financial specialists consider 80 percent an adequate funding level while others say only 100 percent is acceptable. Powers said the county has been able to fund the system while maintaining balanced budgets and building reserves.
McDermott declined to say how much the group planned to spend to pass the initiative that is likely to be staunchly opposed by labor unions.