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Ventura County

Supervisor to Seek End of Officials' Perk

Government: Steve Bennett assails the ability of six elected managers to use vacation time to inflate their retirement pay. He calls the pension benefit a giveaway.

January 06, 2002|CATHERINE SAILLANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Calling it an excessive perk, a Ventura County supervisor says he intends to end a lucrative pension benefit for six elected managers that was approved even after two blue-ribbon commissions recommended it be rejected.

Steve Bennett said he will ask his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors in coming weeks to end elected managers' ability to inflate retirement pay by tacking the cash equivalent of seven weeks' vacation time to their final-year salary.

The perk is an inappropriate giveaway, Bennett said, because those officials have no restrictions on how much time they take off.

"Elected department heads can take any time off that they want and it doesn't get subtracted from vacation time," he said. "And yet in their final year, they get credit for seven weeks of vacation pay, which increases their salary and therefore increases their retirement income."

A Times analysis last year found the practice, known as salary-spiking, boosted retirement pay an average of $6,000 a year. Former Auditor-Controller Tom Mahon, for instance, received an extra $13,400 a year in retirement pay when he stepped down in 2000.

County officials estimate the perk will cost nearly $1 million over 10 years.

Although board members cannot take the bonus away from incumbent officeholders, they can eliminate it for future managers. Supervisors rescinded the perk for themselves several years ago.

Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, Clerk-Recorder Richard Dean and Treasurer-Tax Collector Harold S. Pittman have all announced they will be leaving at the end of the year. Their replacements will be elected this year, making it a good time to do away with the perk, Bennett said. The other two positions eligible for the perk are sheriff and assessor.

Elected managers argue that appointed department heads are entitled to the benefit and say it is a matter of equity to spread the perk across the board. While elected managers can add the vacation bonus only to their final-year salary, appointed managers are permitted to cash out the value of their vacation time each year, Pittman said.

"That inflates their salary every year," he said. "I just think that fair is fair. Why should they get that much more?"

A blue-ribbon salary review panel in 1992 recommended the board eliminate several benefits for elected officials, including the vacation allowance. As a result of the review panel's findings,, the value of those benefits became a part of base pay.

After elected department heads argued this created a disparity in retirement income, a second blue-ribbon committee studied the issue in June 1999. That committee agreed with the first, and no changes were recommended.

Two months later, however, the Board of Supervisors agreed to consider giving the vacation benefit back to elected managers. Bennett questioned the practice when the issue came before the board last year after Mahon's retirement.

Although he voted in favor of Mahon's bonus, Bennett said he wanted to end the provision for future elected officials. It appears he may have support from taxpayer advocates and board colleagues.

Don Facciano, executive director of the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn., said his group objects to any perks being used to spike pay.

"Retirement should be based on salary and nothing more," he said. "We don't think vacation pay should be folded into their retirement."

At least two supervisors, John Flynn and Frank Schillo, agree the provision needs to be reviewed. Schillo said he doesn't accept the argument that elected managers should have benefits equivalent to appointed department heads.

"Since they are elected, they should have the same rules as the Board of Supervisors," he said. "You can't have it both ways."

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