San Ramon Valley Fire Board Grilled by Taxpayers Angry Over Pensions

August 26, 2009 , Contra Costa Times, MercuryNews.com

San Ramon — Facing anger from taxpayers upset over pension benefits, trustees of the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District have agreed to create a committee to review its pension policies.

About 60 people attended a Tuesday night meeting where the board heard a consultant's presentation on the issue. Many in the audience were residents angry that four retired district officials are paid $245,000 a year or more, when their base salaries ranged from $166,173 to $222,500.

Residents, who said they learned about the pensions through Bay Area News Group East Bay editorials, wanted the board to take the issue seriously.

"You need to do something about it and you need to do something quickly," said John Hutchins of Danville.

Board members told audience members they are, and that is why they have hired consultants to review district policies and to see what changes, if any, should be made.

"We are currently in the public, and rather painful process to try to fix (a) system that's not working right now," said board member Roxanne Lindsay, who will serve on the pension committee along with trustee Tom Linari.

No set number of committee members was set, nor guidelines on who should sit on the panel. Another public hearing on the matter will be held Sept. 24.

San Ramon Valley Fire firefighters may retire at age 50. Their pension is calculated by multiplying the number of years served by 3 percent of the retirement year's salary. Under that formula, a $100,000 salary, after 25 years of service, would rate a $75,000 annual pension.

The agency and firefighters pay toward their pension, which is paid through the Contra Costa County Employees' Retirement Association.

District policies allow managers to include enhancement pays such as auto allowances, unused administrative leave and unused vacation to bump their retirement-year salaries, and they may accumulate unused sick leave to add to their years of service.

The base salary for former San Ramon Valley Fire Chief Craig Bowen was $222,507 when he retired in 2008, but after adding unused vacation and other pay enhancements and with a little more than 30 years of service credited, Bowen draws an annual pension of nearly $284,000.

Consultant Arthur Hartinger from Meyers Nave public law firm, told the board that trustees can't change what pay counts toward pensions, but it could revise how it doles out incentives such as management pay and vehicle allowances and adjusting how vacation and sick pay are accrued and capped — ultimately reducing those amounts toward the pension.

While the district has to honor its contracts with current employees, the board could create a two-tier system with a different benefits package for new workers.

The high pensions could affect taxpayers all over Contra Costa County, said Kris Hunt, executive director of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association. Services in the other parts of the county could be forced to be cut in the future to pay for retiree benefits.

"That's wrong too," she said.

by Sophia Kazmi
Contra Costa Times
Posted on MercuryNews.com
Posted: 08/26/2009 11:27:29 AM PDT
Updated: 08/26/2009 03:50:59 PM PDT

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