Pension wars continue

Pension Spiking

For much of this year it has been reported that apparently legal but repugnant to most taxpayers pension spiking in the public sector has been occurring. Those doing the spiking seem to mostly be those in law enforcement and fire fighters, enabling some to retire with more money than they were making when working. And it is not uncommon for these public safety employees who retire in their early 50’s to draw these spiked retirements to then go to some other public agency and keep on working, drawing a monthly retirement check from one employer and a paycheck from another.

This reality has gradually raised the ire of one or more taxpayer groups, and put the media on a quest to obtain public employee retirement payroll information in order to publish the payroll. The media has championed this effort under the banner of the public’s right to know. Demands to various municipal retirement systems for payroll information have been made. The State retirement system, known as PERS, has released that information and media publicity ensued. Some serious apparent spiking cases were evident in that list, the most noteworthy being a retired Los Angeles County City executive who is drawing nearly half a million dollars a year in retirement.

The media next turned its guns on the 58 California counties and their retirement systems. Some have refused to release that information, citing State law that requires they protect the confidentiality of retirees. In retort the media cites legal opinions and court cases that found government payroll information is a public record and is therefore available to the media and others who inquire. The media says this law also applies to public sector retirement system payroll as well.

When the Contra Costa County retirement system received a media request for its payroll information, a former and now retired Deputy Sheriff filed suit against the retirement system saying to release that information would violate his privacy. The suit went to Court, and a Contra Costa Superior Court Judge ruled that the records requested are public information and should be released. As a result, the Contra Costa County retirement system is reportedly going to soon be releasing the payroll information.

End of dispute? Well, not really. The Court decision in Contra Costa applies only to that County. So, the other counties and their media are left to deal with this issue on their own. At least one other county is releasing the information, and several, including Orange County, are refusing to do so based upon the legal advice they are getting.

Here, the Orange County Register is demanding the information. When the County Retirement Board decided on Monday that the answer is no, the newspaper reported that it was “taking the gloves off” to press its request. Then the next day the paper softened its stance some, saying in only wanted the payroll of those receiving 6 figure annual retirement payments, not being interested in embarrassing those who receive a lesser amount.

In the meantime, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted this week to file an appeal on its lawsuit against the County Retirement System regarding the Board’s decision a few years back to sweeten the retirement program for Sheriff’s Deputies and other public safety employees. The issue seems to be that the sweetened deal is both prospective and retroactive and the County seeks a court ruling that the retroactive portion is an unconstitutional gift of public funds and should be voided.

There are also attempts under way in California to qualify one or more initiatives dealing with public sector retirement plans for the ballot. All seem intended to limit those pensions in one way or the other – in once case by imposing a punitive excise tax in the neighborhood of 90%.

Whether the public is in such a funk on the issue of public retirement benefits that it would support such a dramatic tax on one particular group is anyone’s guess at this point.

The Federal government is broke, driving up the national deficit to an unprecedented level. California is broke, with budget cuts, service reductions and some tax increases being implemented to try and get the budget balanced. Unemployment has skyrocketed. All this bad economic news combines to make public sector retirees with guaranteed annual pensions a visible target for the venting of frustration and, in some cases, revenge – especially if they have been able to manipulate the system to spike their retirement.

About Over But Not Out

A retired Orange County employee, and moderate Republican. The editor seriously does not know OBNO's identity as did not the former editor, but his point of view is obviously interesting and valued.