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Wednesday, Mar 12 2014 11:01 PM

JACK BELLOWS: Time to hit the reset button on public employee compensation

I read with great interest the two articles explaining the wonderful golden parachute presented to retiring Undersheriff RoseMary Wahl ("Undersheriff RoseMary Wahl to retire," March 7; "Retiring undersheriff might return on limited basis," March 11). I'm certain that Wahl has served Kern County with integrity during her 30 years of service. I thank her for all of the work she has done on our behalf.

My concern is the fox-guarding-the-chicken-coop culture that has been created with our public service employees in Kern County. It doesn't take a math major to figure out that we cannot afford to keep spending money on lavish retirement packages for all of the "safety" employees on the roster. The Kern County Board of Supervisors set this up years ago when the pension funds were returning 15 percent a year, and the easy concession during contract negotiations was the pension plan. This allowed the supervisors to pass the buck on wages for several years. How can you blame the Kern Law Enforcement Association for accepting the packages on behalf of their members?

Well, the chickens have come home to roost. Our investments no longer result in those great returns of years past. We are required to go deep into our reserves to make up for the promised retirement packages promised in years past. Does anybody besides me think $125,000 a year for retirement at age 51 is crazy? Now we are being told she is so valuable we're going to bring her back part-time as extra help. This will only cost $76,000 a year for 960 hours of work. This is the double-dip we taxpayers love to hear about. This occupation is so stressful that we are told you need to offer early retirement to avoid burnout. Of course, the burnout is easier to handle with a little more compensation.

This is just the pensions we're talking about. Please take the time to download the Kern County Administrative Policy and Procedures Manual. It will show how they can accumulate compensatory time off (CTO). This allows them to demure their overtime for extra days off. They can multiply their overtime hours by 1.5 and save it up for a nice extended vacation or use it for a nice payment upon separation.

The vacations start at 96 hours per year for a new employee and gradually increase to 216 hours per year after 15 years of service. That's 5.4 weeks paid vacation. Now add in the eight to 12 days of sick leave and you can really take a nice vacation. The culture at the county permits this. It is expected. Even the department heads take their sick leave each year as extra vacation time. If you start rolling up your CTO time with your un-used sick leave, as well as your vacation leave, you can accrue 672 hours of extra time to enjoy at your convenience or cash it in at your separation.

When are mere private workers going to take control of the tax dollars we spend on these elaborate packages? It wasn't that long ago when public sector employment was compensated at about 80 percent of what you could expect in the private industry. The extra benefits and generous retirement plans was the trade off.

Now, with private industry continually tightening its belt each year, the positions have been reversed. Now the private sector is the one paying 80 percent of what public employees are receiving. We are also fortunate to receive two weeks of paid vacation, and we often pay for our own health care. It is pretty simple logic: When there are more people receiving then there are paying, we're going to go broke. It's time for a reset.

Jack Bellows of Bakersfield is president of a utility and industrial construction corporation. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.

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