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Board OKs Pension Benefit Study

Supervisors ask Ventura County's chief executive to find out if workers can buy up to five years of credit without costing taxpayers money.

October 04, 2006|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County supervisors decided Tuesday to consider allowing government workers to buy up to five years of pension credit to boost workers' retirement income.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to ask County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston to look into the feasibility of adding the benefit and report back to the panel within two months.

Supervisor Kathy Long, who requested the study, said she would be supportive only if the benefit were paid for by employees and would not end up costing taxpayers in the long run.

"I bring this forward with a very conservative and cautious eye," she said. "But I think we should at least have the CEO look at it."

County Fire Capt. Jeb McGinity, who asked for the pension study, was surprised to learn it had been given the OK.

"They approved it?" said McGinity, reached after the board's meeting at the Fillmore fire station where he works. "I'm in awe."

Like most public employees, Ventura County's workers receive a monthly pension upon retirement. The amount is based on a formula that includes the number of years on the job.

To qualify for increased benefits, an employee would need to have worked for the county at least five years. An undetermined amount of money would be deducted from each paycheck, adding to the pension contribution the employee already makes, to pay for the new benefit.

Adding five years of "air time" would enable some county workers to catch up on retirement planning, said McGinity, a more than 20-year employee.

"You might have a secretary who started with the county late in her life and the cost of it comes out of her pocket," he said.

Assembly Bill 55, signed by former Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, gave local governments the option of providing the benefit to employees. Other Southern California counties, including Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Bernardino, have adopted the benefit, McGinity said.

The law stipulates that the benefit be added only if an actuarial study showed it would not cost taxpayers money. But fiscal managers say that can be an elusive goal and when the numbers turn out wrong, taxpayers are left paying the bill.

"We'll look and see what others did and if there is a way to make it cost-neutral," said Johnston, the county top administrator. "But why do you have to underwrite something if it is cost-neutral?"

Public employee pensions have become a touchy subject across California in recent years. Many state and local governments approved higher pension benefits for employees when pension trusts were brimming with surpluses in the late 1990s.

But starkly lower returns in recent years have left many governments with huge unfunded retirement bills. And they are trying to figure out how to pay for them.

Long said she does not intend to place Ventura County, which resisted pension increases, in any financial peril.

"I'm not sure we need it," she said. "But if the board looks to adopt it, we have to assure taxpayers there are not costs to them."

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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