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So get this. County Supervisor Ron Roberts used to work for the city as a member of the City Council, right?

Well, he worked for the city for seven years. He earned a pension from the city of San Diego. In 2001, the city was considering increasing the benefits for former legislators like him so staff estimated how much his pension was worth if he were to retire: $11,247/year.

Get this: Without having worked for the city at all in the last decade, Ron Roberts’ city pension has climbed from that level to $32,175/year. Important: This does not include his expected pension from the county, which we detailed thoroughly recently.

In other words, Roberts’ pension from the city of San Diego has tripled since the time he stopped working for the city of San Diego.

How can this have happened? It’s called reciprocity. And after my column more than a week ago about the supervisors’ salaries, astute reader TZ pointed out that I may have been grossly understating how much a simple $3,500 increase to the supervisors’ automobile allowance had affected their expected pensions.

Here’s how it works. Bear with me. Government agencies apparently believe it’s important to be able to trade employees easily so they have these so-called reciprocity agreements. So, if a person works for the city of San Diego and decides to quit to work for the county of San Diego, then they don’t have to abandon the years of service they’ve accrued at their first job.

For example, if someone is, say, a parking enforcement officer earning $30,000 for the city for a decade, he accrues some pension benefits. Let’s say that after a while he decides to go to college and he does really well, makes some connections, and builds up a nice resume. Then, he decides he’s tired of having jerks like me scowl at him as he fills out parking tickets and he gets a job at the county. Remember, he still has retirement benefits accrued but he’s too young, at 35, to collect them.

He does really well at the county and gets one of those management jobs making, say, $150,000 a year.

Remember that public employees’ pension benefits are based on three things: what level of benefits the agency they worked for offers, how many years they worked and, importantly, how much their highest salary was.

Even though our parking enforcement guy only made $30,000 from the city of San Diego before he got educated, he had built up pension benefits. And, here’s the kicker: When this guy finally retires from the county he’ll also “retire” from the city even though it may have been years since he worked for the city.

The city of San Diego doesn’t base calculation of his pension on the $30,000 he earned while working there. Because of the reciprocity agreement the city and the county have, the city bases the guy’s retirement calculation on his highest salary at the county. Yes, that means the guy’s pension from the city is based on his $150,000/year salary at the county.

So if he worked for the city for 10 years, even though his salary was $30,000, his annual pension would be $37,500 – and that’s not including his pension from the county, which would also be based on his $150,000/salary over however many years he worked there.

Ron Roberts didn’t do anything to make this happen – other than give himself raises along with his colleagues while on the Board of Supervisors, which not only raise his salary but raise his expected pension benefits from both the county and his previous post at the city. And I need to get my calculator out, because from what I can tell, Dianne Jacob, Greg Cox and Pam Slater-Price all have their own reciprocity benefits coming from previous government jobs.

So let’s redo this: Ron Roberts puts forward a proposal to increase the supervisors’ automobile allowance from $8,200 to $12,000. I got out the spread sheet and figured out what this meant for their pensions because, apparently, automobile allowances are lifelong benefits.

Ron Roberts, for example, will get $1,820 more in his pension for the rest of his life from the county because of this minimal increase to his automobile allowance.

But what I didn’t realize was that his increased salary applied to his time at the city too. So, spread sheet comes out again, and sure enough, a small increase in Roberts’ automobile allowance at the county will now force the city to pay him $929 more for the rest of his life when he finally retires from the city even though he hasn’t worked there for more than a decade.

I don’t mean to especially pick on Roberts. As I said, this is a benefit for potentially thousands of regional government employees.

Nothing comparable exists in the corporate world. Only the complex network of bureaucracies like this could create so many different ways to stay on the gravy train.

To be sure, government officials say this kind of thing is important to preserve. I’ll follow with their argument.


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