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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS | THE SPECIAL ELECTION

Workers in Tune on Pension Reform

Retirement funds issue should unite public employees after their battle over how state sales tax money is allocated, activists say.

November 10, 2005|Jean O. Pasco and David Reyes | Times Staff Writers

Orange County's public employee unions were dusting off the dirt Wednesday, a day after a countywide election that pitted firefighters against other government workers. Already, a grudging rendition of "Kumbaya" was in the works.

Union activists said they foresee growing harmony among state and local employees in the next few months as politicians begin to debate whether it's time to reform public pension systems on the state and county levels.

Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., is optimistic about public employees working together. "I think it's going to take some time to get over what just happened, but hopefully everyone will take a deep breath and then see if we can't work together again."

The pension reform agenda is being pressed from Sacramento to Santa Ana. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has pledged to revive a proposal to create a two-tiered pension system for state employees, with current workers receiving set retirement pay and new workers shifted to an investment-based system.

Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector John M.W. Moorlach, who will be running for a supervisor's seat next year, has called for the county to adopt the same type of pension system. The county is facing a $2.3-billion deficit toward covering pension costs for current employees, according to estimates by the Orange County Employees Retirement System.

Berardino said county supervisors should have no quarrel with the pension benefits they approved in recent years, but conceded that it already is being made an issue by Moorlach. "We definitely expect an attack from the governor, but there's absolutely no reason why this board should attack our pension," Berardino said.

The remarks followed Tuesday's election, in which the big fight was about money.

Orange County voters soundly defeated Measure D, a local initiative backed by firefighters that would have given them a slice of state sales tax money that now goes to the Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's office. The measure was labeled a tax grab by the county employee and deputy sheriff's unions, which spent $1 million to defeat it. County supervisors placed three alternatives to the tax measure on the ballot, then argued against voting for any of them. All were bounced by voters by overwhelming margins.

The only local measure that appeared to survive was a $282-million school bond measure in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa. Supporters assembled more than 500 people who campaigned for the bond money, said Judy Franco, a school board member who helped the "Yes on Measure F" campaign.

The measure, which needed 55% of the votes to pass, had 55.5% as of late Wednesday. About 52,000 ballots countywide had not been counted. That number included absentee ballots returned on election day, plus 9,500 provisional ballots cast by voters whose eligibility must be verified.

In other results, La Habra voters rejected a proposal to make permanent a temporary utilities tax, and San Clemente put businessman Steve Knoblock on the council.

The campaign against Measure D coalesced a diverse group and quelled what had become a rocky relationship between the Board of Supervisors and its employee unions. The union representing deputies, for example, protested this year after the county removed a contract negotiator perceived as being too union-friendly.

"We worked with people we'd had checkered relationships with, and whether that lasts a week or lasts forever, I don't know," said Bob MacLeod, general manager of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.

Firefighters said they could claim a slight victory: an acknowledgment by Sheriff Michael S. Carona that he had $77 million in surplus sales tax proceeds that he hadn't spent.

"I think we'll find ourselves working with [the other unions] again to accomplish other things, because it shouldn't be personal," said Dan Young of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Assn.

Among those hoping for a fight over pensions next year is Reed Royalty, head of the Orange County Taxpayers Assn. "It's inevitably going to be a big issue because they [pension payments] are unsustainable."

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