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Taxpayer Advocates Decry Santa Barbara County’s Pension Costs

The group says the salaries and benefits for public employees are 'unsustainable,' but county Supervisor Janet Wolf calls the gathering a 'political stunt'

Adjectives such as “unsustainable” and “unfair” volleyed outside the Santa Barbara County Administration Building on Monday as a sizable crowd gathered to draw attention to the most crippling budget challenge facing the county to date: pension costs.

Basic pension costs will amount to $90 million for the county’s 4,228 employees this fiscal year, according to a new report put out by a county advisory group.

The county is looking at paying $21 million more than last year just to keep up with contributions. Because of that looming jump, a five-member advisory commission was created last summer to explore alternatives to the county’s current retirement program. The Board of Supervisors will be looking at those alternatives during its meeting on Tuesday. On the table are giving fewer benefits to future employees as well as reforming pension costs for current workers.

Monday’s gathering to protest those costs was spearheaded by the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association, and a slew of prominent conservatives attended in support.

Joe Armendariz, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association, was the first to address the crowd. He said the group has been talking about the county’s budget issues for years, but has taken on a new imperative in the past several years.

The group called for scrutiny on salaries, benefits and retirement plans, as well as raises they say are slated for employee groups.

“With all due respect to our hardworking men and women who work at the county, we believe this is simply unsustainable,” Armendariz said. “This isn’t some kind of a tax revolt; it’s simply an exercise in fiscal responsibility.”

He said benefit costs keep the county from being able to deliver services and benefits, which the group finds “totally unacceptable.”

Tobe Plough, SBCTA’s vice president, said the county has two choices to remain solvent in the short term: Make salary cuts across the board, or cut 25 percent of county staff. Layoffs on that scale certainly would have implications on service.

Brooks Firestone, who served for four years as a county supervisor for the Third District, said political contributions to officials have had a hand in making the county
Brooks Firestone, who served for four years as a county supervisor for the Third District, said political contributions to officials have had a hand in making the county go “broke.” (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

“Taxpayers in this county need to understand that when they call 9-1-1, they may not get the same response that they’ve gotten in the past,” he said. “That’s everybody’s problem.”

Mike Stoker, also of the SBCTA, read a letter urging county officials to rescind raises given to employees from 2008 on.

“The people working in this building are no more important than all the people working in those buildings over there,” he said, gesturing from the County Administration Building to State Street. “At the end of the day, it’s the private sector that creates the revenues that pay all these costs.”

Brooks Firestone, who served for four years as a county supervisor for the Third District, put it simply, “We are broke,” adding that political contributions to officials had a hand in helping the county get that way. Firestone took particular aim at his successor, Doreen Farr, whom he said received $175,000 from the Service Employees International Union in campaign contributions.

“I could never have received anything like that from anybody,” he said. “That gives you an idea of where we are and how we got there.”

County supervisor Janet Wolf spoke with Noozhawk about her reaction to the event: “They seem to be coming from a place of anger instead of a place of being rational.” Of the current politicians such as Armendariz, a Carpinteria city councilman, and former politicians such as Firestone, “they should know better,” she said, calling their comments “rhetoric.”

Wolf said the negotiations were part of long-standing agreements, and that Firestone had been on the board when huge raises were approved. Since then, Wolf maintains, the county has had wage freezes and furloughs.

But she acknowledged the challenges the county is facing, and said she thinks the board is interested in hearing the pension report on Tuesday. Renegotiating pensions won’t result in huge savings in the short term, but over a longer time frame, she said. In the short term, it all comes back to what supervisors are able to negotiate with labor groups.

“I’ve just been hearing it over and over about their rate of pay. ... I take issue with that,” Wolf said, adding that she feels public employees are fairly compensated.

Wolf is pressing for a full-fledged budget workshop so that supervisors can get a handle on what they’re really facing.

“This is our responsibility,” she said, adding that Santa Barbara County has had several very difficult years. As for Monday’s event, she’s not so convinced. “Today was a political stunt.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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