Local Politics

Tuesday, Mar 29 2011 10:00 PM

PENSIONS IN PERIL: Most retirees live modestly

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    County retirees and sisters Carol Cox, left, and Dixie Shields, like that they can do whatever they want including spending an afternoon in their favorite coffee shop. Cox's gross monthly pension benefit of $2,476 is at the statistical median for all county employees who retired in the last decade.

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BY JAMES BURGER, Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

The stories come out of every corner of California, sparking outrage: public employees retiring at age 50 or 60 with a larger annual paycheck in retirement than when they worked.

News of six-figure retirements for mid-management firefighters, sheriff's deputies and top county leaders has added to the fire.

The stories, of course, are true. As of June 2010, 144 retired Kern County employees earned more than $100,000 a year.

But it's also true that most county retirees, even those who retired with sweetened benefits, live much more modest lives.

Modest or remarkable, the cost of thousands of county pensions that were spiked without the support of years of investments has had a major impact on Kern County's financial situation.

MIDDLE GROUND

Carol Cox nets about $1,310 a month from her nearly 23 years as a retired welfare caseworker in Lamont.

Her gross monthly benefit, according to Kern County Employees' Retirement Association records, is $2,476.

Her pension is at the statistical median for all county employees who retired in the last decade. Cox retired in March 2005 at age 67 under the then-new 3-at-60 retirement formula that gave her 3 percent of her salary for every year she'd worked at the county.

Cox said she would have liked to have worked until age 70, but her husband got ill and needed her care.

Now Cox and her sister Dixie Shields, who also retired from the county Department of Human Services, live together and share expenses in a mobile home amid farm fields southeast of Bakersfield.

They get good supplemental medical benefits, both women said. But they pay for them.

And, while Shields makes a bit more than her sister because she worked longer and retired as a supervisor, neither is rich.

"I just get by," Cox said, sipping an often-refreshed cup of coffee beside Shields at their favorite diner, the Golden Ox on Wilson Road. "I can't afford luxuries. I can't afford to travel."

Neither woman is complaining about their lives. They have a big multi-generational family living close by and their home is a touchstone for everyone in their circle of family and friends.

Shields and Cox were proud to be "average" workers keeping the county going. And they have recommendations for people who criticize public workers' pay and benefits.

"Walk in our shoes," Cox said. "You go down there and work the job and deal with the stress. Then you tell us if we're getting paid too much or our benefits are enough."

BIG NUMBERS

The general public may not be aware of workers like Cox. But many have heard of people like Scott Jones, who retired as county administrative officer six years ago.

Over his three decades working for the county, the money Jones invested to fund his retirement -- and the return those dollars earned -- added up to $143,528, according to KCERA reports.

But, if Jones lives to age 82 as the actuaries assume, he will be paid a total of $2.4 million in retirement benefits.

It is unclear how much of the difference between Jones' investment and his benefit has been paid for already through county contributions and the earnings they brought in. Anne Holdren, chief executive officer for KCERA, said the agency does not track county contributions for each employee. The county doesn't track the data either.

But, with just less than 6 percent of his pension payout funded by his own contributions, it seems likely that some portion of Jones' benefit was not fully funded while he worked.

Since Jones has retired, that gap will need to be made up from future county contributions or investment earnings.

DECISION MAKERS

Jones led the county administrative office, which is responsible for drafting county budgets and negotiating union contracts, from 1997 to his retirement on April 1, 2005.

During his tenure, county supervisors relied on his reports and those of consultants managed by his department to make decisions to pay 100 percent of general county employees' contribution to retirement, approve the 3-at-50 benefit for safety employees, take out a $288 million bond to fund pensions and approve the 3-at-60 benefit for general employees.

Jones retired just after turning 58 with 35 years of county service. His retirement kicked in just months after supervisors approved the 3-at-60 pension formula, giving him a near-50 percent increase to his retirement. On the day he retired, Kern County Employees' Retirement Association policy entitled him to an additional 2.5 percent retirement raise.

He now lives in Shaver Lake.

Jones said he always struggled with the fact the county administrative officer is charged with negotiating deals that would eventually impact his or her personal income and benefits.

"That's the way the system is structured. I don't know what a better system would be. The board and the CAO do get the same benefit as other county employees," he said.

One solution, he said, might be to make the CAO a contract employee with a separate pay and benefit package negotiated directly with supervisors.

But he said the union desire for the benefit and flawed actuarial reports were the true drivers behind approval of the pension improvements.

Former Kern County Supervisor Barbara Patrick said it was true that everyone involved in vetting and approving the higher general employee pensions -- from union negotiators to bureaucrats to county employees and the supervisors themselves -- saw their retirements sweetened by the deal.

But she said she would like to think that everyone who made those decisions acted professionally, as she did, and kept the interest of the county above their own personal interests.

"You don't make a decision that is going to impact thousands of people based on what would benefit you," she said. "You just don't do that as a county supervisor. People have to make decisions based on numbers and separate their own benefit from the decision that is being made."

CUMULATIVE IMPACT

Like Jones, Cox's investment history indicates a likely funding gap.

By the end of her time with the county, Cox's personal contributions to KCERA accounts, and the money they earned, totaled $34,764.

Association actuarials assume she will live to age 86 and earn a total of $276,466 over her lifetime.

While her personal investments cover about 12 percent of her total benefit, contributions that Kern County made on her behalf during her career are expected to make up some -- but probably not all -- of the difference.

Compared to the billions of dollars being juggled by KCERA and its actuaries, Cox's relatively meager benefit seems insignificant.

But multiply that benefit by the more than 3,000 workers who retired since 2001 and the challenge for the county and its pension-tenders becomes clear.

Records from KCERA show that the average pension earned by KCERA retirees under 3-at-50 and 3-at-60 in the first five years of their retirement spiked dramatically.

The average monthly benefit of general employees in their first five years of retirement rose from $1,708 in 2004, when 3-at-60 was approved, to $2,651 in 2009, the fifth year the benefit was active.

That represents a 55 percent increase and an annual average benefit of around $31,800.

The average monthly benefit of public safety employees in their first five years of retirement rose from $2,441 in 2000, the year 3-at-60 was approved, to $4,440 in 2005, the fifth year the benefit was active -- an 82 percent increase.

And there are thousands of county workers who are still on the job, working toward the day when they too can claim one of the enhanced benefits that was promised to them over the past decade.

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