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Pension Hikes for O.C. Workers Should Get Voters' OK, Supervisor Says

Pension Hikes for O.C. Workers Should Get Voters' OK, Supervisor Says 

With the County's Pension System $2.7 Billion Underfunded, Moorlach Wants to Get His Proposal on the November Ballot.

July 16, 2008

By STUART PFEIFER
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Concerned about the skyrocketing cost of Orange County employee retirement benefits, Supervisor John M.W. Moorlach on Tuesday proposed requiring voter approval for any future increases to employee pensions.

Moorlach will ask the Board of Supervisors to place an initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot that would require the approval of voters before the county could increase pension benefits for any of its 19,000 workers.

Supervisors are scheduled to consider his request July 29.

Moorlach said he was concerned that earlier pension increases had threatened the county's financial future.

A recent estimate found that the county's pension system is $2.7 billion underfunded, Moorlach said.

In January, the board filed a lawsuit seeking to reverse a 2001 decision to award retroactive pension increases to thousands of sheriff's deputies. That lawsuit is pending and is being watched closely by county officials and deputies unions throughout California.

The 2001 decision allows some deputies to retire as early as age 50 with pensions that pay them 90% of their final salaries for the rest of their lives. Moorlach said that decision cost the county between $100 million and $200 million.

In 2004, supervisors approved pension increases for most other county employees, but those employees pay for the increase through salary deductions.

Moorlach's proposal is expected to meet resistance from county employees unions already concerned about the pending lawsuit to reverse the 2001 benefit.

Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents more than 13,000 employees, said Moorlach's proposal was irrelevant because there were no plans in the works to increase pensions.

"I think Orange County residents are smart enough to see this for what it is, old-style political grandstanding," Berardino said. "Instead of wasting valuable time and scarce resources on meaningless what-if measures like this, our elected officials should be focused on the issues confronting county residents, like the impact of soaring food and fuel prices."

Under Moorlach's plan, increases to county employee retirement benefits would require the approval of supervisors and then of the voters. San Francisco and San Diego counties have similar policies.

Because of growing concern that the county won't be able to afford to pay retirement benefits owed to its employees, it's unlikely that the current board would agree to increase employee pensions, Moorlach said.

Still, he said, requiring voter approval would help ensure that supervisors in the future don't burden the county with benefits it can't afford to pay.

"We had a board that created a rather substantial debt, and not one taxpayer voted to approve that debt," Moorlach said. "So let's make sure that doesn't happen in the future and let's let the voters take a little control of the budget."

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com