Passing of measures L and M leave retirement pay for County Sheriff’s deputies in question

RIVERSIDE – Riverside County voters considered two ballot measures that proposed changing the method by which Riverside County sheriff’s deputies’ retirement plans are adjusted, and the greatest number of voters favored leaving the power with the Board of Supervisors.

”We’re delighted with the results,” board Chairman Marion Ashley said. ”This is good news for the taxpayers of Riverside County.”

Measures L and M were the products of a campaign mounted early this year by the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association — the union representing deputies — to limit the board’s discretion to change county public safety workers’ pension benefits.

The deputies’ union drafted the ”Public Safety & Taxpayer Protection Act of 2010” — Measure L on the ballot — to prevent the board from altering future deputies’ benefits without first receiving voters’ approval.

The board’s initiative, Measure M, asked voters to decide whether their approval should be required before retirement benefits can be increased, leaving the board the latitude to decrease benefits at its discretion.

With all 1,492 precincts reporting, Measure L received 185,954 yes votes, and Measure M had won 213,761 votes.

According to county officials, the measure with the most affirmative votes becomes law.

Roughly 72,000 vote-by-mail and provisional ballots have yet to be processed. But Supervisors Ashley and John Benoit said the outcome was clear.

”I think it’s heartening that voters read through two complicated issues and recognized the more rational approach,” Benoit told City News Service. ”The power play by the union went too far.”

Faced with a $700 million unfunded pension liability, the county has been exploring ways to pare its future retirement obligations.

One option is to change the age at which workers can begin to collect benefits, as well as convert some defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution plans, in which workers contribute more of their own money toward retirement.

A decade ago, the county adopted the ”3 percent at 50” formula for sheriff’s deputies as a recruitment incentive.

The formula bases yearly pension payments on 3 percent of the average of the three highest-paid years of an employee’s career, multiplied by the number of years on the job.

According to the Peace Officers’ Research Association of California, an employee with 18 years of service could expect to receive a little more than half of his on-duty compensation in retirement.

Retirees’ pensions can be as high as 90 percent of pre-retirement income. The minimum age to collect benefits is 50.

Supervisor Bob Buster, an ardent pension reform advocate, characterized the RSA as attempting to ”strip” the board of its fiscal power through the initiative process.

In arguments for Measure M, supporters noted that, by 2016, ”retirement benefits will consume one of every three dollars of the county’s entire public safety personnel budget.”

RSA President Pat McNamara told City News Service the union was concerned that the down economy would lead the board to a ”knee-jerk reaction” that could ”harm workers and their families.”

Supporters of Measure L argued in campaign literature that the average deputy earns $34,385 in annual retirement income, while the pension a retired county supervisor can expect to receive is ”gold-plated.”

The union’s campaign blitz against Measure M included print advertisements comparing Buster to the disgraced ex-Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, who was collecting about $1 million in salary and benefits when he was caught.

”They’re going to need a change in attitude and representatives to cross the divide,” Benoit said of the union. ”The door is open … But I’m not sure we can get very far if the attitude they’ve had in the past prevails.”

Negotiations on a new labor agreement with the RSA are expected to get under way in January.

”Normally speaking, we have a good working relationship with RSA,” said Ashley. ”We were on different sides on this (pension) issue. I hope we can put this behind us and do what’s best for the county.”

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