County Settles on Pensions

Times Staff Writer

Ventura County supervisors have agreed to make $25 million in pension fund dollars available for upgraded benefits, settling a lawsuit brought by employee unions.

The money had been set aside in a reserve account but can now be used for such items as offsetting spiraling health-care costs for retired and active employees.

Brought by the Ventura County Deputy Sheriffs' Assn. in 2001, the lawsuit alleged that the county shortchanged the employees' pension fund by failing to make employer contributions in the late 1990s. Deputies contended the county owed the fund about $100 million.

County officials countered that no payments were necessary because the pension fund had a surplus as a result of last decade's stock market boom. Service Employees International Union, Local 998, which represents about 4,500 general government workers, later filed a similar lawsuit, and the matters were consolidated.

Deputy County Counsel John Polich said the settlement shows that the county was correct in its contention that it was not obligated to keep making payments.

"The amount being paid reflects a recognition that there is no damning indictment of anything the county has done," he said.

But Stephen H. Silver, who represented the deputies' group, said employees gained important concessions.

Besides the $25 million for new benefits, employees obtained the county's promise to "meet and confer" with union representatives about the pension plan each year.

"Nobody won anything," Silver said. "This was a compromise settlement."

With the county facing an uncertain economic future, the labor groups were also aware that a costly court judgment against the county could hurt active employees in the form of layoffs, Silver said.

"They looked at the big picture and the potential negative impact of winning this lawsuit and decided to settle," he said.

Both lawsuits were filed during tense contract negotiations in which the unions sought improvements to their retirement pay. The county later settled the contracts without providing the pension enhancements.

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