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Retirement Board Won’t Extend Extra Benefits to Former Employees

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Inviting a lawsuit from a coalition of employees’ unions, the county retirement board Monday declined to apply a landmark court ruling retroactively and give millions in back pay to retirees.

The Board of Retirement voted 6 to 3 to shoot down a motion that would have made all former county employees eligible for three years’ worth of extra benefits.

After a state Supreme Court ruling last year that dramatically affects the way benefits are calculated, the board voted in January to change the formula for future retirement benefits. But it resisted retroactive payments.

With the threat of legal action, the board Monday reconsidered and rejected granting three years of back benefits.

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“If the Board of Supervisors wants to do that, [grant retroactive benefits] I’d be happy,” said county Treasurer-Tax Collector Hal Pittman, who cast one of the dissenting votes. “But I don’t see that as the responsibility of this board.”

Catherine Johnston, a former treasurer-tax collector speaking on behalf of the Ventura County Retired Employees Assn., begged to differ.

“It is not up to the Board of Supervisors,” said Johnston, who worked for the county 42 years. “It is your board that must make this decision.

“We’re not talking about money,” she added. “We’re talking about what is right and what is wrong.”

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Donna Clontz, general manager of the Ventura County Deputy Sheriffs’ Assn., tried unsuccessfully to change the board’s mind, pointing out that a coalition of county labor groups is set to sue them over the issue.

Afterward, a draft copy of the suit in hand, she said it would likely be filed within days.

As a result of a precedent-setting lawsuit brought by the Deputy Sheriffs’ Assn., Ventura and 19 other California counties must add certain employee benefits, such as cashed-out vacation time, to base pay when calculating retirement benefits.

That means Ventura County must pay out more retirement benefits than it had anticipated when collecting contributions for its retirement systems.

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The county is on the hook for an estimated $66 million in future retirement payments for all active employees and those who retired within the past year, according to a consultant’s report.

And if the court decision is deemed applicable to all 2,861 former county employees now collecting retirement benefits, the county could be liable for another $27.6 million.

Moreover, if the decision was made retroactive for those who have been collecting benefits during the past three years--as some attorneys argue it should--the county would have to pay out an extra $5.9 million in lump sum checks, according to the report by actuary Rick Roeder.

The sum of all those unfunded costs, when spread out, would cost the county more than $14 million a year--money that would have to come from the county’s budget, officials said.

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Vern Markley, who has been representing the sheriff’s deputies on the board for 19 years, made the motion to make the ruling apply three years back, mirroring a controversial decision made by Orange County’s retirement board.

He pointed to the success Ventura County’s retirement fund has enjoyed in recent years--jumping from a little over $1 billion in 1995 to nearly $1.9 billion today--as evidence that the retirement system could handle the cost increase. And he pointed to a recent Marin County court decision as evidence that Ventura County may eventually be forced to grant the benefits retroactively.

“These people should be given retroactivity, period,” said Markley, whose comments elicited applause several times from the audience of retirees.

But the majority of the board opted to wait for the outcome of the various lawsuits making their way through the courts in the 20 counties affected by the ruling. They argued that they did not want to give any benefits they did not have to, or reach a deal with county employees, only to have it superseded by a ruling in another county.

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