The names and amounts of pensions paid to 2,757 retired public employees will be released this week by the Stanislaus County Employees' Retirement Association.
StanCERA's board voted unanimously Monday to abide by a Stanislaus County judge's ruling to make the information public. Board members had considered appealing the court's decision but rejected that option.
The data release results from a lawsuit against StanCERA filed this summer by The Modesto Bee, California First Amendment Coalition and the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
Superior Court Judge Hurl John- son ruled two weeks ago that the public has a right to know how taxpayer money is being spent on pensions and who is receiving that money.
StanCERA oversees the retirement system for employees of the county and the courts, the city of Ceres, the Stanislaus Council of Governments, Keyes Community Services, the Sa- lida Sanitary District, the Eastside Mosquito Abatement District and the Hills Ferry Cemetery District.
The pension data, which will be released as PDF computer files, will be made available to The Bee and any member of the public.
In addition to the names and pension amounts, the board decided to include the number of years of serv- ice each employee worked to qualify for the benefits.
"I appreciate the unanimous decision made by StanCERA board members to release the requested information in the wake of the recent judgment," said Eric Johnston, The Bee's publisher. "While The Bee was prepared to pursue further legal action should they have decided otherwise, the public is best served by their decision to operate openly and avoid further appeals."
StanCERA board member and Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini also is glad the issue is settled.
"I didn't feel we had a leg to stand on appealing," DeMartini said. He estimated that 44 retired employees receive more than $100,000 a year in pensions. "I think everybody is curious about who the top few (earners on the list) are."
Editor Mark Vasché said it hasn't been decided how much of the data will be published in The Bee or on modbee.com.
"Contrary to what some people think, our primary purpose in seeking the information was not to expose or embarrass retirees," Vasché said. "There is mounting evidence that the public em- ployee pension system as it currently operates has compounded government's fi- nancial problems and is unsustainable and in need of major reform. We intend to take a hard look at StanCERA to determine to what extent 'spiking' and other prac- tices have driven taxpayer-supported pensions to unreasonable levels."
DeMartini also expressed concern about spiking, which is a technique some retirees have used to dramatically increase their pensions.
"You get all kinds of gimmicks and games played to boost up what an employee earns during their last year," DeMartini explained. He said some employees have learned to "work the system" by collecting an abnormally large amount of overtime or cashing out sick leave and vacation time during their final year.
Since California government agencies base retirement pay on what an em- ployee earns the year before retirement, those one-time income spikes can permanently boost a retiree's pension.
During its last fiscal year, StanCERA paid $71.5 million to almost 2,800 retirees. Stan- islaus County was facing a $22.7 million increase in its pension fund contribution for the 2009-10 fiscal year before the retirement board agreed in April to shift nonvested benefit reserves to reduce that obligation.
"It's important to remember that The Bee acted on behalf of the public's right to know," said Vasché, explaining the lawsuit seeking pension records. "While we will be receiving and using the pension information from StanCERA, every citizen now has the right to ask for and receive that same information."
Johnston said The Bee "will be pursuing reimbursement for our full legal costs in this matter."
It will be up to the judge to decide how much StanCERA must pay the newspaper for its legal expenses.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2196.