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Ventura County Pension Case Draws Scrutiny

June 29, 2005|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

A legal tussle over pension benefits for Ventura County government workers is being tracked closely for its potentially costly effect on other public retirement systems in California.

The suit, brought by retiree George Mathews, contends that retired and active county government employees should have received enhanced pension benefits during the late 1990s, when the county's retirement system was flush with excess earnings.

Instead, administrators of the retirement system, Ventura County Employees Retirement Assn., allowed the county to use the surplus to reduce its share of pension contributions.

Mathews, representing more than 10,000 retired and current members of the pension system, alleges that the reduced-contribution payments violated state law and that Ventura County should be either required to pay back the $100 million it saved between 1998 and 2002 or provide enhanced benefits.

Local government analysts warn that an adverse ruling could prove costly for Ventura and other counties while limiting their ability to control expenses.

The ripple effect on other public retirement systems could cost taxpayers millions of dollars at a time when many pension trusts are already underfunded, analysts warn.

"If they are saying that retirement law in counties is being misapplied, the impact could be sweeping," said Steve Keil, legislative analyst with the California State Assn. of Counties.

Mathews' attorney, Michael Conger, was on vacation and did not return calls. But retiree Art Goulet, president of a Ventura County retired employees' group, said a decision favoring plaintiffs would be beneficial to public workers statewide.

"Our position is that if you shouldn't get any more benefits, then why does the law provide for it?" said Goulet, 67.

As a former department manager, Goulet receives $154,000 in annual retirement pay, according to court testimony. But he's an exception, Goulet said.

Depending on the year they retired, former county employees average from $950 to $1,886 a month in retirement pay. Retired public safety employees receive an average of $4,110 a month, Goulet said. In addition, retirees receive a monthly stipend of $135.94 to offset the cost of healthcare premiums, he said.

"You have a whole bunch of retirees who really don't have wonderful retirement benefits," Goulet said. "They do get the $135.94, but that doesn't come close to paying their healthcare costs, and they are struggling."

The judge hearing the case listened to arguments for three days and last week indicated he may ask for additional briefings before making a ruling later this summer. If either side appeals the decision, an appellate ruling could set precedent on how excess earnings in pensions trusts can be used in 20 other counties with similar retirement systems, said John Polich, a lawyer representing Ventura County.

"It's a very important case because it would determine if there is a constitutional duty of retirement boards to use surplus assets in a particular way," Polich said.

An earlier court decision involving Ventura County had the effect of driving up pension costs statewide. The so-called Ventura decision, which the state Supreme Court made in 1996, changed the way counties define salary, expanding it to include bonuses and other items of pay.

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