Forty Merced County employees have retired in the past two months, an unusually high number of retirees in a short time frame, according to county officials, and may in time affect services.
The May 8 agenda of the Merced County Employees’ Retirement Association reflects 19 retirements and 21 were listed on the April 10 agenda.
By comparison, the number of retirements in February and March were only seven and eight, respectively.
In addition, a number of county leadership positions are vacant – the mental health director, public defender, librarian and animal services manager.
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In light of a projected $9.3 million deficit in next year’s county budget, County Executive Officer Jim Brown said it’s unclear whether he will fill all 40 positions. Brown previously stressed that employee benefits and salaries are the biggest cost drivers in the budget.
“At this point, we’re not sure,” he said. “As we do with all vacancies and retirements, we’ll evaluate each one on a case-by-case basis to see how it impacts the budget and we’ll make a decision whether we will fill it or hold it.”
Brown added that the vacancies allow county administrators to examine the structure of many departments. “Whenever you do have vacancies it provides an opportunity to re-evaluate how you’re doing business and if there’s a better way,” he said.
The sudden jump in retirements can be linked to several factors, county officials said, including uncertainty about whether employees will be allowed to retain a 160-hour “terminal vacation” payout that increases their pension.
The 160-hour benefit stems from a 1997 California Supreme Court decision in a Ventura County case that addressed whether terminal cash-outs could be counted toward employee pensions. Some counties went to trial; others reached their own settlements. Merced County’s settlement, made in 2000, granted the 160-hour payout.
County officials said a possible appeal of the court ruling could put an end to the benefit and possibly prompt more retirements.
“We do know that some of it (retirements) is because of the 160-hour issue that’s presently in court,” said Assistant County Counsel Richard Flores. “And whether or not people in the future will be able to utilize the 160-hour cash-out in their last year.”
Flores said Merced County officials expect the 160-hour benefit to remain for those hired before Dec. 31, 2012, but the decision could be appealed by the state.
“My understanding is the decision will probably be appealed by the state Attorney General’s Office, so people are worried,” Flores said. “Until there’s an appeal, we will still be doing business as usual.”
Steven Bland, plan administrator of the Merced County Employees’ Retirement Association, said some employees may have accelerated their retirements to April 1 to get a cost-of-living adjustment. Employees in Tier 1 receive an annual adjustment for inflation not to exceed 3 percent.
“Retirements are seasonal and there are benefits to going out before April 1,” Bland said. “The people who go out before April 1 get the adjustment earlier. Those that go after April 1 would have to wait another cycle before they can get it.”
Some county officials say losing a large number of county employees, especially those in key positions, could have an impact on services.
“It already is impacting services. I’m not sure who to call sometimes because the people I’ve depended on for 10 to 15 years aren’t there,” said District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey, who also sits on the retirement board. “The next tier of employees that have taken over those duties don’t know the issues within our community.”
Brown acknowledged the difficulty with providing the same level of county services with fewer staff members.
“We are already short-staffed in many departments and this will create challenges for us on a short-term basis,” he said. “We have had to get creative and some individuals are having to do more. However, we have good employees and we’ll do the best job we can.”
In the meantime, Brown said, he’s working on filling several vacant leadership positions.
For the public defender job, Brown said the county is conducting oral panel interviews with eight to 10 people. Chief Deputy Public Defender Vincent Andrade was appointed to the interim position in February, but Brown would not confirm if he has applied to be the public defender.
Brown said panel interviews have been completed for the county librarian position, with two to four candidates moving forward in the process.
A new mental health director could join the county within a month, he said, adding that interviews have been completed. The Board of Supervisors discussed appointing a mental health director in closed session during last week’s board meeting.
Brown said the county’s agricultural commissioner, David Robinson, who also serves as director of animal control, has been overseeing that department since the retirement of the animal services manager, Rick Blackwell.
There might be some future changes to the county’s animal control division, according to Brown.
“Dave Robinson is stepping in and devoting a significant amount of his time,” Brown said, “But we are evaluating how we do business and if there are changes that need to be made.”