Op-Ed: Sutter County pension op-ed same tired, old rhetoric
I read Pat Miller's op-ed in last week's Appeal-Democrat ("Sutter County must address rising pension debt problem") with a sense of déjà vu as the Sutter County Taxpayers Association once again attacks a decision made years ago. Miller once again drones on about county employees' "excessive retirement."
Keep in mind that Miller is a retired state employee who retired under the "2 percent at 60" formula. Now, she attacks the county's retirement system as excessive because it uses a formula of 2.7 percent at 55. What Miller neglects to mention is that, as a state retiree, the state pays for her medical insurance, along with her spouse. This is no small benefit, and one that Sutter County employees do not receive. If Miller is going to throw stones, perhaps she should reinforce her glass house.
Miller cites documents issued by CalPERS to substantiate her attack. She neglects to provide those documents, or a citation to where they can be found. I obtained a copy of the documents she cites, which I have provided to the Appeal-Democrat. This way everyone can read the entire reports, instead of relying on Miller's recitation of select facts from these reports that support her accusations.
These reports indicate that the current funded status of both the Miscellaneous Plan and the Safety Plan have both increased on a year-to-year basis. In September 2007, CalPERS Senior Pension Actuary Richard Santos indicated that the amount of funded assets in the county's pension plan has increased since 2004. In fact, year-to-year increases are approximately 7.2 percent (Miscellaneous) and 4.6 percent (Safety) from 2006 to 2007. In Santos' 2007 presentation, he indicated that it was normal for pension plans to fluctuate between overfunded and underfunded status, given various economic factors. These changes are typical of a defined benefit pension plan.
So long as Miller insists on dwelling in the past, let's revisit the considerations the board made when it increased the retirement benefits in 2004. First, the workforce overall is aging, including in Sutter County, which means many of Sutter County's workers will be retiring over the next several years regardless of the benefits offered. Second, workers who replace retiring employees typically start at a lower level wage, which results in an immediate salary savings. Third, as older employees retire, the workforce average age is lower, resulting in lower retirement costs in the long term. All of these factors suggest that overall costs will remain stagnant, or a slight savings may be realized in the long term.
Most government employees earn less money than their counterparts in the private sector. Personal experience suggests the majority of these fit into one of two categories. There is the employee who takes the government job to get work experience to transfer to the private sector for more money. This employee costs the government employer its training costs without the benefit of a long-term employee. The other type is the employee who is willing to accept the lower salary in exchange for the better benefits, including retirement, health care, and better working hours. The only way the government can retain valuable trained employees is by offering better benefits.
There is no question that the economy is in trouble. What is unclear is why Miller and the SCTA continue to attack county workers for earning a retirement benefit that, in her eyes, is not as good as the one Miller and her SCTA cohorts receive. These are the same employees who shop here and contribute to the tax base that Miller and the SCTA purport to protect.
As the SCTA will undoubtedly point out, I am a state employee. My husband is a county employee. I'm glad I work for the state because, in the long run, my retirement is going to be worth more than his when health insurance costs are included. I doubt most Sutter County employees are so lucky.
Holly Stout is an attorney and activist.