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O.C. Assailed Over Boost in Benefits

Human resources OKd sweetened pensions, bonuses that will add $75 million to budget while county braces for cuts, grand jury says.

May 16, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

A new grand jury report criticizes Orange County's human resources department for agreeing to benefits for county workers that could end up costing the county an extra $75 million at a time it is considering layoffs and massive service cutbacks.

The eight-page report, to be formally released Monday, is the third in a series of Orange County Grand Jury reports about alleged mismanagement in the human resources office.

The report faults county officials for increasing pension benefits for county law enforcement officers and firefighters, allowing workers to merge sick leave and vacation pay, approving 2% salary bonuses for county workers and increasing the amount of money the county pays to educate its workforce.

"Salary and employee benefit increases have been generously distributed with little regard to impacts on county budgets or taxpayer interests," wrote the grand jury, which acts as a watchdog for local government. The report does not say how unusual the benefits are compared with those provided by other counties. At least one of the arrangements criticized in the report, however -- a lucrative retirement provision for some law enforcement and firefighting employees -- is common statewide.

The grand jury suggested that the county try to renegotiate some benefits with unions representing more than 17,000 of its employees and establish an oversight committee to monitor labor negotiations -- an idea first proposed by Supervisors Chuck Smith and Chris Norby.

In addition, the panel suggested that the county's auditor and chief financial officer review all wage and benefit proposals and take them to the Board of Supervisors for approval.

Representatives of three of the largest Orange County employee unions said they believed the benefits were not out of line and suggested that additional oversight would impede labor negotiations.

"That would create labor problems that are going to be a firestorm of trouble for the county," said Nick Berardino, assistant general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents more than 13,000 county government workers.

Robert MacLeod, general manager of the union that represents more than 1,700 sheriff's deputies and district attorney investigators, said he believes the grand jury report lacks credibility because the panel refused to meet with him or other union officials.

"If you're only willing to listen to one side, you have no right to claim your position is worthy of respect and consideration," MacLeod said.

Diane Thomas, a county spokeswoman, declined to comment. She said it is not within county policy to discuss grand jury reports until county staff has prepared a written response.

The grand jury report follows two earlier reports that said the human resources office created a hostile work environment and overpaid a consultant. The latest report comes at a time when Orange County, like many local governments in California, is struggling to deal with a massive budget shortfall that could require it to cut services and lay off workers.

It criticized the county's decision to approve a 50% increase in retirement benefits for its more than 2,000 sheriff's deputies and firefighters, a plan that allows some veteran workers to retire at 50 with a pension of as much as 90% of their final salary for life. The plan will cost the county $28.7 million a year, according to the grand jury report.

Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector John M.W. Moorlach has been highly critical of the increased pension benefit, which he said could deplete the county's pension system and force the county to make massive cutbacks.

"You can see this train wreck coming in slow motion, just like you could see the bankruptcy," said Moorlach, whose criticism of Orange County's risky investment strategies in the early 1990s went largely ignored until the county declared bankruptcy in 1994.

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