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Judge dismisses lawsuit seeking to cut pensions of O.C. deputies

The county had hoped to save millions by suing to roll back retirement benefits. A judge rejects the county's argument that a 2001 contract amendment violated state law. The county vows to continue the fight.

February 27, 2009|Christine Hanley

In a setback to Orange County officials, a judge tossed out a lawsuit Thursday that sought to roll back the retirement benefits of sheriff's deputies -- a move government officials insist would save the county tens of millions of dollars.

But county officials said the fight over the benefits will continue and most logically should be decided by the state Supreme Court.

The case is being watched by counties and municipalities throughout the state, in part because the law enforcement benefits at stake are identical to those in all but two of California's 58 counties.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors filed the lawsuit last year, seeking to repeal part of their pension agreement with sheriff's deputies, saying the county could not afford the expense.

If the county ultimately prevails, the county says it could save as much as $187 million in the coming decades. But it has come at a cost already, driving a wedge between county bureaucrats and one of the county's most politically powerful unions.

At the heart of the legal dispute is the structure of a labor contract between the sheriff's union and the county that has been adopted by government agencies throughout the state for police, teachers and other public employees.

The 2001 contract increased pensions by one-third and granted the benefit retroactively.

Last year, the Board of Supervisors, led by Supervisor John Moorlach, filed the suit arguing that the retroactive portion of the agreement was unconstitutional and should be repealed because it violated a state prohibition on pay for work already performed. The supervisors also argued that the benefit exceeded the county's debt limit.

Moorlach has estimated that the county could save $187 million over the next 30 years if the lawsuit is ultimately successful, helping to reduce an enormous debt in its pension fund.

In her ruling Thursday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Helen Bendix said she disagreed that the retroactive pay violated state law. She is allowing the county 30 days to amend the lawsuit regarding the debt-limitation argument, finding that the county did not prove the benefit went over the limit.

Mario Mainero, chief of staff for Moorlach, said it was not unusual for a trial judge to be reluctant to strike down a pension. "We believe we will be vindicated in the state's highest court," Mainero said.

But Wayne Quint, head of the deputies union, said amending or appealing the lawsuit would be a "frivolous and unconscionable" waste of taxpayer money.

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christine.hanley@latimes.com

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