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Transit Panel Ups Pensions for Its Staff

Some Ventura County transportation commissioners say the move sends the wrong message, but director says it's overdue.

September 23, 2004|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

A Ventura County transit agency that is backing a sales tax measure on the November ballot to raise money for road improvements recently sweetened pension benefits for its administrative staff, documents show.

On a 4-to-3 vote, the Ventura County Transportation Commission on Sept. 10 approved a benefit hike for its 15 employees. The change boosts pensions by changing the formula the commission uses to calculate benefits.

Though the total estimated cost of the increase is relatively small, about $12,000 annually, Commissioner Linda Parks said it sends the wrong message to voters.

"It wasn't a fiscally responsible thing to do," said Parks, who voted against the hike, along with Commissioners Steve Bennett and Jay Scott. "Particularly at a time when the commission is taking a measure to voters for a tax increase."

Commission Executive Director Ginger Gherardi dismissed Parks' criticism as overblown.

"Twelve-thousand dollars out of a $50-million-a-year budget is infinitesimally small," Gherardi said.

The pension hike was long overdue and necessary to keep the Transportation Commission's salary package competitive with other public agencies, Gherardi said.

It is less costly than generous pension enhancements awarded by hundreds of California public agencies in recent years, she added.

Commissioners voted in June to put Measure B on the Nov. 2 ballot, with Parks dissenting. The measure asks Ventura County voters to increase the sales tax by half a cent for 30 years, in order to raise $1.5 billion for highway and road improvements.

If approved, Ventura County's sales tax would rise to 7.75% from the current 7.25%.

Gherardi said that conversations about the pension hike began in March and the budget adopted in June reflected the anticipated increased cost. The September vote was the final action necessary, she said.

"The timing is perhaps unfortunate because of the length of time it took to make the change," she said. "But this came up before the board made a decision to go ahead with the sales tax. The main reason was to treat our employees equitably with the city people."

All of Ventura County's cities, except Moorpark, already offer the pension enhancement, Gherardi said.

The change allows Transportation Commission employees to use their final year's salary as the basis for calculating pension benefits.

Previously, workers used an average salary for their final three years of employment, resulting in a lower retirement check.

Gherardi said two job applicants had turned down offers in the last year, citing the commission's inferior benefits. As it stands, commission employees do not qualify for full benefits until age 60, even though dozens of other public employers have lowered their retirement age to 55, she said.

Commissioner Keith Millhouse, who voted for the pension enhancement, said it was the right thing to do.

"The commission and our staff have done an excellent job of balancing our budget," Millhouse said. "Our staff is very efficient with the money they are given. It's a small price to pay to keep good employees."

Money raised by Measure B will go almost entirely toward fixing congested freeways, maintaining roads and expanding mass transit, said Millhouse, who also sits on the Yes on Measure B Committee. Less than 1% is earmarked for administration, and annual audits will be performed, he said.

"No money is going to be wasted or diverted," he said.

Pensions have become a touchy subject for dozens of California cities, counties and local agencies that have improved them in recent years.

Stock market investments that were supposed to cover some of the cost of enhanced packages have not materialized, leaving taxpayers to cover the higher pension costs.

San Diego's pension woes have become so dire that the city's credit rating was suspended this week by a Wall Street investment analyst. Financial decisions made by city leaders are the focus of state and federal probes.

Bennett, who is a county supervisor and chairman of the Transportation Commission, said financial uncertainty makes it a bad time to be increasing pension benefits for any government employee.

"Overall we have a statewide budget crisis, and I think that the taxpayers expect us to hold the line, particularly on pension benefit increases," he said.

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