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RULING HAS AUDITORS ON THE RUN; PENSION DECISION'S COST UNKNOWN.

Byline: Gloria Gonzales Daily News Staff Writer

Ventura County officials said Friday that it would take weeks for auditors and administrators to determine just how much a state Supreme Court decision on Thursday that could raise retirement pay for thousands of workers would cost.

The Supreme Court decision affects the retirement pay of about 5,000 county workers in nine unions. Whether pay will increase, and by how much, will depend on individual positions.

``Every benefit will have to be looked at, for all different types of employees,'' said Van Perris, manager of the Ventura County Employees Retirement Association. ``There are a number of other unions with specific benefits, and some benefits, like educational incentives, would seem to apply across the board, but all that has to be figured into costs.''

The decision was made in the case of Ventura County Deputy Sheriff's Association vs. Board of Retirement, but will likely affect all county employees covered by the County Employees Retirement Law of 1937.

``It was unexpected, because the court completely reversed itself,'' said Hal Pittman, the county treasurer. ``We're working with county counsel to determine the effects of this decision, but there are so many different variables. We've heard estimates of costs reaching $1.5 million per year, but that's just a quick estimate. If these changes are applied across the board, and we believe they will be, that figure would increase considerably.''

County workers' yearly retirement pay is based on their salary, the number of years of service and age at retirement. In 1995, the 687-member Ventura County Deputy Sheriff's Association sued the County Board of Retirement, arguing that their retirement pay should be based on salary plus ``cash premiums'' employees earned during each year.

Cash premiums are money earned over and above salary, and include bonuses. For example, a deputy might have a base salary of $40,000, but could earn several thousands dollar more each year for uniform maintenance, getting a higher-education degree, speaking Spanish, working during scheduled vacation days and training other officers.

``The suit was filed on behalf of three of our members who looked at the amount of compensation the county granted them at retirement and noticed that they had chiseled out all these parts,'' said David Williams, president of the Ventura County Deputy Sheriff's Association. ``Our attorney, Steve Silver, argued that most of those should be included in . . . compensation.''

Attorneys for the Board of Retirement said not so, and based their argument on a 1983 decision that 20 California counties had followed for the last 14 years. That decision defined compensation as the base amount of salary paid uniformly to all employees in a certain class - and excluded bonuses and other extras.

``We're surprised and disappointed at the dismissal of our views with very little consideration by the state Supreme Court that 20 counties have followed this law for 14 years,'' said Noel Klebaum, ``. . . and the court's dismissal of the county's fiscal concerns by saying, in effect, too bad.''

Ventura County attorneys, retirement administrators and auditors will spend the next few weeks analyzing costs and crafting a petition for a rehearing on the issue while the Board of Retirement and the County Board of Supervisors decide whether to petition the court to reconsider its decision. However, it is not likely that the state Supreme Court would rehear the case. The court only rehears about 2 percent of all the cases that come before it, officials said.

Opponents of the retirement increase point out that in 1995, the Board of Supervisors issued a $150 million bond to pay ballooning retirement costs caused in part by increased longevity. Supporters note that the county's contribution to the retirement fund has declined in recent years, due in part to the bull market and wise investments.

``The county retirement fund had an excess of $45 million this year,'' Williams said. ``The retirement board has done a good job, and the impact of this decision will be minimal at best.''

Whatever the impact, some taxpayers rankle at increasing public employees' retirement pay.

``This decision will be very costly for the taxpayers of Ventura County and in the 19 other counties,'' said Jere Robings, president of the Ventura County Alliance of Taxpayers. ``The county's retirement plan is already lucrative compared to private-sector plans. The county pension plan just became even more generous, and we're all going to pay for it.''

WHO'S AFFECTED

Thursday's state Supreme Court decision affects the retirement pay of about 5,000 county workers in nine unions. Whether retirement pay will increase, and by how much, will depend on individual positions.

Service Employees International Union Local 998 - With 3,816 members, this group includes general, service and clerical workers.

Management and unrepresented employees - With 947 employees, includes administrators and executive, confidential clerical employees.

Ventura County Deputy Sheriff's Association - With 693 members, covers all sworn sheriff's deputies in the county.

Ventura County Professional Firefighters Association - With 337 members, includes all county firefighters.

California Nurses Association - With 303 members, includes all nurses working in county facilities.

Ventura County Professional Peace Officers Association - With 269 members, includes correctional officers.

Ventura County Sheriff's Correctional Officers Association - With 170 members, includes probation officers and some deputies working in jails and other correctional facilities.

International Union of Operating Engineers Local 501 - With 149 employees, this union includes tradesmen and women such as carpenters, electricians and maintenance workers.

Criminal Justice Attorney's Association - With 145 members, includes attorneys on the county payroll, also public defenders and prosecutors.

Specialized Peace Officers Union - With 18 members, includes coroners, deputy coroners and welfare fraud investigators.

Source: Ventura County Personnel Department

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Aug 16, 1997
Words:941
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