Fresno pensions highest for fire, police retirees

FRESNO — One retired Fresno city fire captain receives an annual pension of more than $190,000 — more than twice a typical captain's salary. Another receives nearly $180,000 a year.

Seventy-two of 865 former police or fire employees had pensions of more than $100,000 in 2009. Only five of 1,402 nonpublic-safety retirees reached that level.

The numbers, provided by the city in response to a state Public Records Act request by The Bee, highlight a sensitive problem: Politically powerful public safety employees received more than half of pension payouts this year.

Pensions are at the heart of City Hall's effort to fix a projected $28 million budget deficit over the next 18 months.

More than $7 million of the deficit is because of higher-than-expected retirement contributions from the city.

Although Fresno's pension systems are well-funded compared with others around the state, the value of its investments has dropped sharply during the recession.

Unless there is a big turnaround in the economy, City Hall sees the city's retirement contributions only growing. Reform is in the air.

"We are going to have a real good look at what the retirement costs are in the city of Fresno," Mayor Ashley Swearengin said at a recent town hall meeting.

The mayor is sure to face objections if she wants to cut back on pensions.

Bill Trollinger, first vice president of the Fresno Police Officers Association, said the public safety retirement system is a good deal for members and Fresnans.

"Police and fire are both unique jobs," he said. "You have to make split-second decisions, and no matter what, you're second-guessed. I believe for the citizens of Fresno the retirement program is a fair trade-off."

Fresno has two retirement systems, one for public safety employees and one for civilians. Because pay and pension formulas are different for the two groups, the two systems can produce dramatically different payouts.

Of the 25 highest pensions, only one goes to a civilian retiree, former planning director Nick Yovino is No. 22 at $125,513.

The board that oversees the public safety pension system has declined to make public the names of its six-figure pension recipients.

The Modesto Bee prevailed this month in a lawsuit to force the Stanislaus County Employees' Retirement Association to release information on pensions for its 2,757 public service retirees. Fifty retirees are getting pensions greater than $100,000 a year.

Stanislaus County expects to pay $36.36 million into the retirement system this fiscal year. Its costs are expected to rise as more employees exercise retirement options and StanCERA deals with the past mistakes of actuaries.

Records show that more than half of Fresno's 2,267 retirees receive annual pensions of less than $36,000.

The key to earning a lucrative pension as a city employee: Start work at an early age, especially in the police or fire department; rise to management; enter the Deferred Retirement Option Program in your 50s; continue working for five or 10 years.

DROP enables employees to deposit what would be their pension payments into an investment account while continuing to work.

Retirement administrator Stanley McDivitt said DROP participants aren't double-dipping.

But DROP clearly is the reason for so many large retirement payouts. Of the $16,208 received monthly by the retired captain at the top of the six-figure list, for example, nearly $9,300 comes from his DROP investments.