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Friday, January 06, 2006 | So San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre got a letter from California Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s office the other day.
“Back off,” it said, more or less.
“Keep your nose out of county affairs,” it said, more or less.
The letter, sent to Aguirre on Dec. 19, and obtained by the Voice of San Diego just this week, said that Aguirre – as a city official – has no reason to be looking at a 2002 decision by the county Board of Supervisors to increase employee pension benefits.
“… the city attorney, as a municipal officer, simply has no legitimate interest in the operations of another, independent superior governmental subdivision, namely the county,” wrote Gary W. Schons, Lockyer’s senior assistant attorney general.
The staff here at Scott Lewis on Politics™, or SLOP™, is quite certain that the county just loved being referred to as a “superior” government.
And they probably loved the rest of the letter, too.
It all came up because of a report that appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune, a local newspaper, a few weeks ago saying that Aguirre’s office was considering an investigation into a 2002 vote of the Board of Supervisors. Aguirre was reacting to a complaint filed by local attorney Mike Conger, who has hounded and successfully sued local public pension systems for quite some time now.
See, Aguirre as city attorney, has the power and duty to prosecute misdemeanor offenses – like drunk driving – if they occur in the city of San Diego. Now, Conger is pushing the argument that because the board of supervisors voted for a massive pension benefit enhancement for county employees in 2002 in a building that is in the city of San Diego, Aguirre has jurisdiction to prosecute the board.
Prosecute them for what?
Good question. Try to stay along, this is a twisty road.
The board of supervisors voted in 2002 to give employees a 50-percent increase in what they can expect in pensions when they retire. But the pension enhancement wasn’t just from that point forward. The board – saying it hoped to be able to continue recruiting and retaining quality employees – made the pension benefits retroactive.
In other words, not only did they want to recruit and retain employees in the future, they also wanted to pay employees more for service that had already been rendered.
For an employee who had worked 25 years and expected a final average salary of $40,000, that meant her expected annual pension instantly went up from $20,000 to $30,000.
Before that increase happened, about 30 employees retired every month from the county, immediately after that enhancement went into effect, 813 employees retired in the next two-and-a-half months.
Read a special report Voice did on the issue a few months ago.
Anyway, as you can imagine, doing this for its employees cost the county a bundle. After issuing mountains of debt to Wall Street investors, the county still had to prepare for a massive payment to its pension system. County taxpayers now have to put about $300 million a year into the county employee pension fund.
This, for a retirement system that used to be so full of cash, the county didn’t put more than $37 million of taxpayer funds into it any year since 1995.
All fine and good, you’re saying, but none of this sounds illegal.
No, but there is one thing that’s kind of interesting. As we noticed while researching the story linked above, the supervisors reported on their agenda in 2002 that the proposed action would cost about $32 million a year.
The county pays double that just to pay off the pension bonds it sold after that. Nevermind the hefty pension contribution taxpayers have to make – which, like we said, is now hovering at $300 million a year annually.
Conger says that the board of supervisors committed a crime by reporting that the pension increase it gave employees would cost $32 million a year. It’s a crime, he says, because they had figures that showed it would be much more.
For the wonks and lawyers among SLOP fans and foes, he references California Government Codes 7507 and 1222 in his arguments.
The newspaper article apparently got Lockyer’s attention.
“The happenstance that the county Board of Supervisors sits in the city of San Diego cannot begin to suggest that your office ought to engage in investigating county operations or officers, even for a misdemeanor offense,” Lockyer’s representative wrote to Aguirre.
He also argues that even if the city attorney was within his jurisdiction, he’s a bit late on the scene. The statute of limitations on misdemeanors is one year, wrote Schons.
Called for a response, the city attorney wasn’t giving anything away.
“We respect their point of view and we’re reviewing the case. Nothing more should be read into than that.” Aguirre said.
At a recent meeting of the county pension board, I asked County Supervisor Dianne Jacob about Conger’s accusation.
“It’s absolutely false,” she said.
Asked about the payments taxpayers now had to meet to support the county employee pension fund, and Jacob was unapologetic.
“What the taxpayers are getting is a high level of employee service. Because we have a total compensation package which includes these benefit enhancements to retain and attract the brightest and the best employees,” she said.
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