Marin County public employees fed up with pay and pension critics

Marin County public employees fed up with pay and pension critics

29 October 2011

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USA — A number of veteran Marin County employees who work hard for their pay and pensions are sick and tired of being flayed by irate taxpayers who think public workers get too much for doing too little.

Others at the Marin County Civic Center say they don’t give critics and the politics of the moment much thought as they focus on getting their jobs done. They note pension cutbacks are in the works for new hires — and that retirement is too far away to worry about in any case.

Whether employees bristle at critics or simply try to ignore them, many share the common bond of pride about doing meaningful work that provides community service.

After all, they say, the soaring tab for local government isn’t the employees’ fault: All the staff did was sign up to do the job for the pay, pension and benefits that taxpayer representatives — in this case the Board of Supervisors — guaranteed would be theirs regardless of cost.

Further, pensions and pay for most in county employ are modest, employees say, with plump benefits given a few generating the headlines that make it appear all are riding a golden gravy train.

That, along with an undercurrent of resentment, resignation or what some called sadness, seemed to sum up several recurring points of view as county employees talked about serving the public amid the slings and arrows of pension, pay and benefit critics.

“I hope we remember that just because there’s a issue with the system doesn’t mean all those in the system are the issue,” noted Mona Miyasato, chief assistant county administrator. “Our employees fill potholes, connect people to jobs, save lives and preserve our open space.”

At the same time, she said, “the county agrees that public pensions aren’t sustainable as they are, and that’s why we’re making changes to reduce costs.”

The $100,000 club

A representative of rank-and-file employees noted that officials such as Miyasato, who earns $185,000 a year, are in a top pay minority at the Civic Center. “Most MAPE members are not making the grandiose salaries and pensions,” said Phillip Thomas, president of the Marin Association of Public Employees, the Civic Center’s largest union with more than 1,400 members.

“There are very few MAPE members who make over $100,000 a year,” said the 47-year-old Thomas, an 11-year public works technician. “Most of us make modest salaries and modest retirements.”

Thomas, citing a “disconnect” in public opinion, said critics “are really talking about the upper-paid administrators, not the average worker.”

The county payroll indicates that about a quarter of the workforce, or about 600 employees, receives checks totaling $100,000 or more, with 10 earning more than $200,000. More than 150 retired county employees earn pensions topping $100,000, and three get more than $200,000. The average county of Marin public employee salary is about $83,000 a year, and the average pension, about $34,000.

County employees are not members of the Social Security system, where the average annual check this year was about $14,000 — and the maximum check for a worker retiring at 66, about $28,000. That also means county employees do not pay into the Social Security system — and neither does their employer, the county.

The median annual salary for the region last year was $63,000, according to Jorge Villalobos, a federal labor analyst. Median household income in Marin in 2008 was $88,000.

Fair compensation

“County employees are not getting rich,” said Susannah Clark, who is grateful for her $83,000-a-year job as an aide to Supervisor Susan Adams. “They are fairly compensated for the level of risk they take in the day-to-day performance of their job and the expertise they bring,” the former law firm paralegal said. “I went into county government because I wanted to give back to my community. I love what I do and I feel that my services are valued by the community I serve.”

At the same time, working in county government isn’t the cake walk some think it is, according to county workers, as fewer employees are asked to do more with less amid budget cuts — and find themselves the target of frazzled citizens. “Our office receives calls from people who are frustrated and confused with the rising costs of government services,” Clark said. “People are upset that everything is costing more, and county government is the closest target.”

She said she’s not angry or mad, but rather “saddened by the current attack on county employees. We seem to be scapegoats for people’s frustrations. … Everyone is feeling the pressure and some are looking for someone to blame.”

The 60-year-old Clark noted that she has paid more than $600 a month into her county retirement program for 13 years. And “almost $900 of my salary per month goes to pay for my health insurance.” Although she worked in the private sector for 20 years before joining the county, she is not entitled to get all the Social Security benefits she paid for in light of her county pension. “My pension payments will be less than what my Social Security payments would have been,” she said.

Barbara Kob, an 18-year veteran who lost her job as county mediation chief during budget cuts last year and now works as a union organizer, said that after $18,000 in health care costs for her and her husband are deducted from her $28,000 pension, she barely has enough to scrape by. “I’d like people to have an accurate idea of what a county pension looks like,” she said. “This $100,000 club pension stuff is a myth for most of us.”

And Art Brook, a 25-year county veteran who represents the Civic Center’s mid-managers’ union, said that the security pensions provide in retirement is a tradeoff for the “slightly lower pay” he said public employees get when compared to those in private enterprise. In addition, Brook, who earns $118,000, noted Marin is an equal opportunity employer. “Even the critics could have applied for a county job if they were capable of providing the services,” he observed.

One common thread that ties many county employees is a passion for doing satisfying work that provides a public benefit.

“Rarely a day goes by that I am not impressed and moved by the dedication of our workforce,” said Joanne Peterson, the county’s personnel chief. “They are a group of hard-working folks who chose a career in serving the public, making our communities safe places with a high quality of family living. They are the middle-class wage earners of our society … and now the value they add is often disparaged.”

Jeremey Pierce, a 41-year-old senior fire captain who joined the county fire department two decades ago, said he believes his $116,000 salary, along with special benefits including earlier retirement for safety employees, provide “fair compensation” for a grueling job that involves the risk of life and limb. “You rarely get out of this without (suffering an) injury or ailment,” he said. “It’s a young man’s job.”

Most firefighters pay little attention to compensation critics but some are frustrated that “the whole story” is never told, he said: skilled employees who dedicate their lives to public safety despite the danger get fair pay, some of which they must contribute to the pension system themselves. The ire of critics who target public workers is misdirected, he added. “We have politicians who over the years made financial decisions that didn’t make sense,” he said.

Racy Ming, 36, the $93,000-a-year manager of the county’s Marin Employment Connection, said that with a master’s from Stanford, she could have gone into a more lucrative line of work, but added that she and a “very dedicated group of colleagues” in the county Department of Health and Human Services find great satisfaction in “providing a safety net for the community.” She added that retirement is so far off she doesn’t give it or pension critics much thought.

Kari Beuerman, a 42-year-old, $97,000-a-year program manager of the county’s Aging and Adult Services, doesn’t give pensions much thought either, although she acknowledges having “some trepidation” about the future. When she’s ready to retire in 25 years, “there’s no telling what the situation is going to be,” she noted. “I went into this work because I wanted to be of service to a vulnerable population.”

Beuerman noted pension benefits for newer workers are lower than they are for veterans. “I’m not entitled to the same benefits as my predecessors,” the six-year employee noted. Officials launched a round of modest reforms several years ago after analysts noted mounting liabilities, with county taxpayer pension and health care debt today ranging from $700 million to more than $2 billion, essentially depending on which way the stock market swings.

Employees pay, too

Alexis McBride, 68, who retired after 32 years as a county lawyer and now heads the Marin County Retired Employees Association, is a big booster of employees and retirees alike. She pointed out that employees make substantial contributions to the pension fund.

“From the first day I began working for the county in 1972 … a chunk (of pay) labeled retirement went missing before I saw it, then it was put in a safe place (and) just sat there for years, accumulating interest, income and dividends.”

When a woman in her book club declared, “We just can’t afford those pensions anymore!” McBride shot back that “she and ‘they’ weren’t paying for my pension. My pension is being paid by my enforced savings and money that was put aside by the county in lieu of wages. The compensation we were paid for doing our jobs included the money the county put aside as their share of the wages we earned.”

Although employee contributions add up, employers, or taxpayers, contribute three to four times more to the county pension program than workers do. This year, for example, taxpayer pension payments to the county system were $66.3 million, while employee payments totaled $16.8 million.

McBride said taxpayers need to keep in mind that some jobs, though necessary, are risky or not terribly attractive, so the incentive to join the workforce is the promise of a comfortable retirement.

“It is unfair and inequitable for a community to then scorn individuals who have sacrificed and saved for their later years,” McBride said.

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