A City Loses Many Decades of Know-How All at Once

Times Staff Writer

Doris Brown's career at the Anaheim Convention Center is as old as the center itself, spanning 20 years of auto shows and millions of conventioneers as she climbed the job ladder from clerk-typist to events coordinator.

It is a career that Brown enjoyed and would have liked to continue for a few more years. But last month, Brown, 62, joined the Class of '87, nearly 120 city employees who retired before the end of 1987 to escape a change in the city's retiree health benefits plan, which took effect Jan. 1.

This mass exodus of employees--nearly three times the city's normal turnover--will cost Anaheim nearly 2,000 years of job experience by some estimates, affecting virtually every city department.

While no one believes the city is about to sink, there will be a scramble to maintain the same level of services, city officials said.

"It will be a difficult transition," predicted Garry McRae, director of the city's Human Resources Department and the man charged with finding replacements for many of those who have left. "There is no question that when you lose thousands of years of experience, you will have a sense of loss and period of relearning. The people who are leaving knew where everything was."

McRae said he knew of few other cities in the state in similar straits: "We have a unique situation because most other cities offered few if any retirement benefits even in 1983. Anaheim had a very advantageous retirement plan, and even now it is still very liberal."

Would Have Delayed

Many of those departing said they would have delayed their retirements were it not for the benefits change.

"I probably would have stayed to make it 30 years," said Richard C. Gray, 53, a police captain who has logged 28 years with the city. "It was a matter of weighing what I would have lost by staying and gained by leaving--and it made more sense to retire."

McRae said he has already been told by some remaining employees that the pace of work--helped along by the kinds of unwritten procedures an employee learns only with years of experience--has been disrupted. But McRae said the transition will be manageable.

City officials have been planning for the retirements for years. The city devised the health benefits change in 1983; it was adopted by the Anaheim Municipal Employees Assn. during contract negotiations, taking effect this year.

Under the plan--which covers all managerial, clerical, general, confidential and Fire Department employees--all of those hired before Feb. 1, 1984, and who retired in 1987 will be charged a flat monthly rate ($15 for individuals or couples, $45 for families) for health insurance, leaving the city to pick up increases in medical expenses.

For those retiring in 1988 or later, however, the city will pay a fixed monthly rate (based on the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan rate--$94.72 for individuals, $189 for couples, and $268 for families), and the retirees will pay for all medical plan rate increases.

According to a 1983 study, which prompted the contract change, the city was paying nearly 8% of its payroll--almost $5 million a year--on health benefits for retirees. The change is expected to cut that percentage in half, saving the city nearly $135 million in the next 30 years.

But city officials admitted that the impact of losing so much experience all at once is incalculable.

"We've had an extraordinary recruiting program in effect since last September, and many of the positions will be filled by internal promotions," Assistant Personnel Director Dave Hill said. "And we still have a service level of 10 years per employee, even with the loss. But it's still hard to gauge just what impact these retirements will have over the next few months."

Many of the retirees, such as the convention center's Brown, have logged 20 or even 30 years with the city; their ranks include many in top management positions. Probably the best-known member of the Class of '87 is Police Chief Jimmie Kennedy, 53. The class also includes Anaheim Stadium general manager William I. Turner, 63; Assistant Fire Chief Ronald Evans, 53; city historian Opal Kissinger; recreation services manager Patsy Ray; economic development coordinator Rudolph Gonzalez, and scores of others.

The city's engineering and fire departments are among the hardest hit. Besides Evans, the Fire Department lost 21 people, including a battalion chief, two fire captains, five fire engineers and at least five firefighters.

"It represents nearly a tenth of our staff--more than 500 years of service," Fire Chief Jeff Bowman said. "But we have been preparing for it, and have used this time to reorganize our management, reducing two positions. It will have no impact on our level of service." Bowman added that 14 new recruits are scheduled to begin duty Friday.

Art Daw, deputy city engineer, said the 13 retirees in his department represent about 15% of his staff. Daw said many staff members will have increased workloads until new employees are hired, but even so, the department work schedule will be slowed considerably during the next few months.

In the meantime, at least two major projects to improve storm drains and streets have been contracted to private firms, and more may follow if necessary, Daw said. He added that at least five retirees have already been rehired on a temporary, part-time basis to help alleviate strains within the department.

Some of the vacancies have been filled through promotions, but finding qualified engineers for the other posts will be difficult, Daw said.

"It is rather difficult to recruit engineers in Orange County because of the competitive market," said Daw, himself a 27-year employee with the city. "We have received many applications, but many of them don't appear to be of the same caliber as those we lost; they certainly don't have the same level of experience."

At last count, about 64 jobs vacated by retirees still need to be filled, McRae said. But because many of the positions have been filled through promotions, there are dozens more job openings at lower staff levels. As a result, some key retirees--still covered under the old health plan--will be retained until replacements are hired, he said.

Capt. Martin Mitchell, for example, a 30-year veteran employee scheduled to retire last month, has agreed to act as interim police chief while a national search for a new chief is under way.

Another retiree returning part time will be Doris Brown.

"The city is losing a lot of knowledge and expertise, but things will go on as usual," Brown said.

"Many (retirees) will be around in a consulting capacity. I think the city will continue to function."

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