Although their union is demanding a hefty pension increase, Ventura County sheriff's deputies already enjoy significantly greater benefits than civilian employees in county government, a Times survey has found.
And if the deputies' latest request is granted, that gap would only widen, critics say.
The deputies' demands come as civilian employees also lobby for cost-of-living increases on retirement benefits. And the county is bracing for a court ruling that could further increase pensions for already retired employees.
The combined price tag could run as high as $300 million, virtually depleting the surplus in the county's plush pension trust and resulting in a $20-million dip into the county's general fund.
"The budgetary impact would be dramatic," said Harry Hufford, the county's chief administrator. "This county couldn't handle that in one year without draconian budget cuts."
Board members could be forced to choose one employee group's request over the other, but the union representing civilian workers is already promising litigation if it is ignored.
Glen Kitzman, president of the Ventura County Deputy Sheriff's Assn., was quick to defend the group's pension perks, arguing deputies' jobs come with significantly more risks.
"If any of them want the safety retirement and [cost-of-living] raises, we have plenty of openings," Kitzman said. "Let them apply, go through the extensive background checks and they can carry guns and chase bad guys around and everything else."
Under current standards, sheriff's deputies can retire at 50 with a monthly stipend of 2% of their highest salary earnings for every year of service. The Ventura County Deputy Sheriff's Assn. is pushing for a 1% increase.
Today, for instance, a 55-year-old sheriff's sergeant with 30 years of service receives $4,715 a month in retirement benefits. Under the new formula, the same sergeant would get $5,400.
By comparison, a county personnel analyst making the equivalent salary with the same years of service is entitled to $2,630 a month.
Sheriff employees also receive cost-of-living raises on pension benefits, something most county employees do not receive. By age 70, the same retired sheriff's sergeant under the new formula would pick up $8,413 each month, while the civilian employee would still receive $2,630.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., called the proposed increase by the deputies' union an abuse of privilege.
"These pensions are a scam-and-a-half," Coupal said. "We certainly want to support our fire and safety personnel. But this is quickly approaching the level of outrageousness and is becoming a serious drain to any community."
The county union representing civilian employees submitted a report to supervisors in February asking to extend pension cost-of-living increases to the 85% of county workers who do not receive it. More than 5,000 employees are in this category.
County supervisors should look at the proposal from "a standpoint of equity and fairness," said Barry Hammitt, president of the Service Employees International Union.
"Until we start to place the same value on a nurse, a social service worker, a doctor or any other person in the county as a public safety officer, we are going to see this problem," he said.
By refusing to give civilian employees cost-of-living benefits, supervisors would be "dooming them to fall below poverty levels," Hammitt said. The union is prepared to go to court if its requests are brushed aside, he said.
"I would think that if that were to happen, you'd have to take a long hard look at some level of litigation," Hammitt said.
Although the new benefit for civilian employees would cost about $120 million, Hammitt argues the county can comfortably afford the plan because the retirement pension trust now has a $368-million surplus.
Kitzman, currently negotiating a new contract for deputies, refers to the surplus money when justifying the pension increase for his union members. The cost of the deputies' plan would be about $100 million.
Kitzman also argued board members should not make it an "either/or" decision between the two unions. Much of the cost for benefits, for instance, could be mitigated by deferring cash set aside for pay raises, he said.
Despite the healthy pension package public safety employees now enjoy, Kitzman said the increase is needed to remain competitive with neighboring departments.
The Ventura Police Department began offering the 3% pension deal earlier this year and Oxnard police officials say they will begin the program soon. The Simi Valley Police Department offers a 3% pension incentive beginning at age 55.
Hufford, however, was more critical of the increase, saying Sheriff's Department employees have come to simply expect such privileges because of a local ordinance that exclusively earmarks about $40 million a year in proceeds from a half-cent sales tax for public safety agencies.