OC Voters Vote in Force for Pension-Changing Measure J

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Orange County residents overwhelmingly approved a measure Tuesday that gives voters final say on future county employee pension increases.

Measure J, which changes the county's charter, stemmed from concern that pension increases approved previously will throw the county's budget out of balance.

The main sponsor of the measure was Board of Supervisors Chair John Moorlach, who told his colleagues that already-approved pensions are just 73 percent funded.

Unlike pension spikes approved for sheriff's deputies and county employees in 2001 and 2004, respectively, Measure J requires county officials to present voters with an actuarial study detailing the full cost of pension enhancements. The county's unfunded liability will also need to be outlined.

Supervisor Chris Norby said when it was put on the ballot in July that the measure is simply too late.

"All the problems it's supposed to ameliorate have already occurred," Norby said.

"The pensions that this report refers to have already been passed," Norby said. "They can't be taken back. So this is literally a case of locking the barn when the horses are gone. The horses are gone. They're not going to come back. We can't bring them back."

County union leaders have said they are not contemplating pension increases for now so the measure is a non-issue. But they still believed the issue should stay out of the hands of voters and remain a process of negotiations.

General county employees were granted pension increases in 2004 when the then-board voted 3-2 to let workers retire at 55 and receive pension payments equal to 2.7 percent of their final pay times their number of years with the county.  It was approved after unions agreed to pay the differential cost through payroll deductions.

In 2001, the board agreed to let deputies retire as early as age 50, with pensions that pay them 90 percent of their final salaries for life. That decision, Moorlach said, cost taxpayers $100 million to $200 million.

Following Moorlach's lead, the board is challenging, with a lawsuit, retroactive provisions of that pension increase.

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