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For nearly a year, the county pension fund has tried repeatedly to find ways around salary limits on its investment staff.

The San Diego County Employees Retirement Association argues that it needs to pay the staff more to attract top-tier talent. It’s tried outsourcing the employees who oversee the $7.2 billion fund, a plan that would’ve been illegal had officials gone through with it. It’s weighed creating a separate nonprofit investment company. It’s avoided the county limits once, outsourcing its top investment position to a consultant for a maximum $4.5 million over three years. His predecessor made $209,000 annually.

Now the association is confronting the limits head on, by asking the county to remove them. The pension fund wants to increase its 13-member investment staff to 30 employees, boosting current employees’ salaries and bringing in-house some investing functions now performed by outside managers.

Association CEO Brian White says the association hasn’t been able to recruit the investment employees it’s wanted for three positions. But the proposal’s benefits wouldn’t just be reaped by the investment staff. A secretary and administrative assistant would also get boosts.

White’s proposal would raise a secretary’s $61,000 salary to $85,000 annually — plus another $12,750 in annual incentives. With the bonus, that’d be a 60 percent boost. An assistant’s $56,000 salary would be bumped to $60,000 — plus $9,000 in annual incentives. That’d be a 23 percent boost with the bonus.

The proposal creates four positions that could earn $450,000 annually in base pay and bonuses; another 13 could make $300,000 annually including bonuses. None would get more than the top investment officer, Lee Partridge, who’d become a public employee making $886,000 in base pay and incentives.

No county employee today makes more than $274,000.

In a July 7 letter, White urged the county to grant the necessary permission to clear the way for SDCERA to hire 17 more investment employees at a cost of $7.5 million annually.

The plan puts the association in the conflicting position of arguing that it can’t recruit qualified employees with its current salary cap, while simultaneously proposing raises for employees it has already recruited, hired and retained.

In his letter, White said the plan would save money by cutting management expenses. The organization currently budgets $90 million for the outside investors who actually move the fund’s money around. Moving those positions in-house, he said, could cut outside fees by $30 million — netting about $21 million in annual savings.

The request to the county comes without the pension fund’s board having formally agreed to it — at least during open meetings.

Walt Ekard, the county’s chief administrative officer, noted that lack of discussion in responding to White’s letter and urged the association to first present the proposal to its board before seeking county approval.

If the board discusses and agrees on the policy, Ekard said the county would review it.

White didn’t return calls for comment Monday, but said in a late Monday e-mail that he’d call Tuesday.

The pension fund’s board is scheduled to discuss the issue Thursday at 8:30 a.m.

— ROB DAVIS

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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