The public always has a right to know how and where its money is spent. That's how citizens make critical decisions about how their government is working. It's one of the basic premises of a democracy.
These days, Californians need to understand how public employee pension plans have grown to an unsustainable level and how those obligations are starting to cut into the current services provided by cities, counties and other agencies.
They can't gain that understanding unless they have sufficient information.
That's why the Stanislaus County Employees' Retirement Association (StanCERA) should — and, we believe, ultimately will have to — make public the names and pension amounts of retirees making more than $100,000 a year.
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Only with detailed information — including names and positions — is it possible to identify costly practices, such as pension spiking, in which unused vacation and sick leave and other benefits are added in to beef up the pensions paid for the rest of a person's life.
Citing confidentially and privacy concerns, the StanCERA board voted 6-3 not to release the names and pension amounts of members receiving more than $100,000 a year, as requested by The Bee under the Freedom of Information Act.
That's the same stand that Contra Costa County's retirement board, which operates under the same state law as Stanislaus, took earlier this year.
Eventually a Superior Court judge there ruled that the information be made public. As it turns out, Contra Costa has 432 retirees making more than $100,000 a year.
Around the state, many agencies have already released the information about public retirees with the most lucrative pensions. The largest are PERS (Public Employees' Retirement System) and CalSTRS (State Teachers' Retirement System).
Since most local school districts and cities, including Modesto and Turlock, are part of those statewide systems, the information on their top pensioners is public.
In the wake of the Contra Costa court ruling, other agencies are falling in line. We hope the StanCERA board will see the light and release the information. Otherwise, it could very well find itself in court.
In 2008, the average monthly pension for StanCERA's 2,000 retirees was $2,080. Thus, the names and pension amounts for the overwhelming majority aren't being requested.
The Bee's request is for the pensioners making over $100,000 a year, to highlight a system that that is already costly and will only grow more so.
The largest contributor to StanCERA is the county of Stanislaus. This year, the county will put nearly $25 million into the retirement fund. That's the employer contribution toward the future pensions of current employees and, in some cases, the negotiated amount that the county is paying toward the employee contributions. The county has two other huge pension expenses: $11.4 million to pay off a pension obligation bond and $13.8 million to Social Security.
Pension costs are a huge expense to the county and therefore to the taxpayers. It's a the issue the public needs to know about.