Race’s Crux: Fiscal Stance

Times Staff Writer

Few people paid attention to John M.W. Moorlach in 1994 when, as a candidate for Orange County treasurer, he warned that the longtime incumbent’s risky investments could cost the county millions of dollars.

Moorlach lost the race but won the argument.

In December 1994, the county declared the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history, posting investment losses of $1.7 billion.

Now, Moorlach, the current treasurer, is at it again, this time issuing dire fiscal warnings as a candidate for county supervisor. He says the Board of Supervisors has obligated taxpayers to future employee pension payments the county can’t afford -- a liability he says could lead to another bankruptcy.

Moorlach is opposed in the June 6 primary by David Shawver, a Stanton councilman and Long Beach high school teacher who emerged as a candidate just two days before the filing deadline.

Shawver has never run for countywide office but is getting support from government employee groups angered by Moorlach’s attack on their pension deals.


Shawver’s first three campaign mailers were paid for by the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.

The Orange County Employees Assn. last month asked all members to allocate $10 from their dues to support Shawver.

Union chief Nick Berardino called Moorlach “the biggest threat in the county to employees’ personal financial security.”

Shawver says Moorlach has been a good county treasurer, but says just because he was right about the county’s investments 12 years ago doesn’t mean he’s right about today’s pension obligations.

“I just don’t know what his leadership qualities are,” said Shawver, who has sat on several regional boards as a 16-year member of the Stanton City Council.

He said Moorlach unnecessarily alienated the county’s employee unions by blaming them for benefits approved by the board.

“How are you going to sit down with these folks and solve the problem when you’ve been beating them up?” Shawver asked.

Moorlach said he was willing to take a $30,000-a-year pay cut -- the difference between his treasurer salary and that of a supervisor -- to become one of the five board members who set policy.

“I bring an element of leadership where I can connect people to get things done,” he said.

“I think I can serve the county better at this point as a supervisor.”

Moorlach has long predicted problems with the county’s pension obligations and a looming bill for healthcare benefits for retirees.

In 2004, he urged supervisors to reject a sweetening of pension benefits for most employees by 62%, which also allowed retirement at 55 rather than 62.

That vote came after the board had drastically improved retirement benefits for public safety employees, who can now retire at 50 with 3% of their salary for every year of service.

Those moves left the county’s pension fund about $2 billion short of what’s needed to cover promises made to current employees over 30 years.

Anticipated medical payments to retirees add $1.4 billion to the shortfall.

“The supervisors said, ‘Let’s just kick this bill to someone else and let our kids pay for it,’ ” Moorlach said.

But allowing police and firefighters to retire with guaranteed pay at 50 after ending dangerous careers is the right thing to do, Shawver said.

“Aren’t we obligated to take care of them when they’re older because of the service they provided?” he asked.