Supervisor seeks to cut pensions of O.C. deputies
Already viewed with deep suspicion by the county’s workforce, Supervisor John Moorlach on Friday proposed overhauling Orange County’s pension system and shrinking what he sees as an overly generous retirement plan for deputies and other law enforcement investigators.
Moorlach, who unveiled his proposal during a news conference, said he was targeting the “3% at 50" pension formula for deputies and district attorney’s investigators. The formula was approved in 2002.
The supervisor has already angered law enforcement ranks by suggesting that they should not be treated differently from other county employees and by calling union leaders “thugs.” In response, the union has tried to ban Moorlach from attending law enforcement functions, including funerals of officers killed in the line of duty.
Friday’s announcement from Moorlach did little to improve relations.
“When our retirees were told of this, it was devastating to them,” said Mike Carre, interim general manager of the 1,800-member union representing Orange County sheriff’s deputies.
Under the current plan, deputies can retire at age 50 with 3% of their highest year’s pay multiplied by each year of service.
The 2002 formula added a percentage point retroactively to a deputy’s years of service -- a feature reviewed by pension experts who found that it “violated the state Constitution,” Moorlach said.
The average annual pension for deputies who retired after 2002 came to $70,000 a year, said Mario Mainero, Moorlach’s chief of staff.
“This is a gratuity, a gift of public funds,” the supervisor said, adding that it was extra compensation the county was not authorized to provide by the state Legislature.
Moorlach has predicted devastating problems with the county’s pension obligations and a looming healthcare bill to cover benefits for retirees. Under the deputies’ formula, the county has an estimated future bill of $185 million, which is part of its overall $2.3 billion in unfunded pension costs.
Moorlach is proposing to halt use of the formula by the county pension board. His plan would affect only those deputies and investigators who have retired since 2002. A vote is expected at the board’s July 31 meeting.
Board Chairman Chris Norby, who attended the news conference, said that he did not know how other supervisors would vote but that he supported Moorlach’s plan. “As supervisors, we’re sworn to uphold the state’s Constitution.”
Officials at the news conference said they did not know how many deputies and investigators could be financially affected by the proposal. A sheriff’s spokesman estimated as many as 500 affected retirees, all those who have left since 2002. But there are more than 2,000 deputies and investigators near retirement, some of whom, like the retirees, would stand to lose as much as a third of their retirement pay under the proposal.
“The retirees are extremely upset,” Carre said. “This also affects deputies and investigators planning for retirement, and Supervisor Moorlach is telling them they will have to plan for a third less than they planned for.
“He’s devaluing the contribution these people have made during their careers,” Carre said. “We don’t understand. This benefit was obtained during lawful collective bargaining. Now Supervisor Moorlach wants to change the rules of the game.”
The issue will be referred to the union’s legal advisors, he said.
Moorlach’s proposal comes during ongoing labor negotiations for sheriff’s deputies, who are currently operating under an interim contract, county officials said.
For years, Moorlach, the former county treasurer and tax collector, said he felt that the 2002 labor contract “seemed odd” because it called for a retroactive increase.
But it wasn’t until his election to the board in November, he said, that he had a chance to analyze the labor contract with the help of Mainero, a professor at Whittier Law School.
According to Moorlach, a deputy who in 2002 had worked for 25 years had earned 50% of his or her final year’s compensation as an annual pension.
When the new formula became effective, that same deputy was given an additional 1% per year for the past 25 years, and now had 75% of the final year’s compensation as an annual salary, “without working for it or paying for it.”
Moorlach also said he wants the county to hire an outside legal firm to settle the constitutionality question. If his position gains traction, it will have broad implications statewide for local governments dealing with spiraling pension costs.