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As District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis navigates San Diego pension politics during her run for mayor, she’ll have one particular issue to deal with: her own retirement check.
Dumanis’ pension would approach $250,000 annually assuming she finishes her current term in office in 2014, according to a voiceofsandiego.org analysis. If she wins the election and serves eight years as San Diego’s mayor, she’d be eligible to receive a pension worth more than $305,000 a year.
In either case, Dumanis’ pension, after almost 40 years as a county typist, deputy district attorney, Superior Court judge and elected district attorney, would allow her to receive more money annually in retirement than her salary any year she was employed.
For years, pensions have dominated San Diego politics and, with the city’s financial problems still unfixed, they promise again to be at the center of the 2012 mayoral campaign.
Most reforms have focused on trimming the benefits of future workers. As Dumanis formulates a plan, her own pension provides a stark reminder of how high public employee pensions can rise and opens a window into some of the perks enjoyed by judges and those who move from government to government.
“I think there’s something wrong with that system,” said Dumanis, a Republican. “I didn’t create that system and I’m going to fix that system.”
If Dumanis is elected mayor, she’ll have worked for three different governments and be eligible for three pensions. To calculate her pension, those governments will use some combination of the number of years she worked, her age at retirement and her salary.
Here’s how Dumanis’ pensions would break down:
San Diego County
Dumanis began her government service in 1974 with an entry-level county job as a junior clerk typist, delivering mail and answering telephones. She went to law school, became a deputy district attorney and later was elected D.A. She’s spent her entire career at the county except for her stint as judge.
Assuming she finishes her current term as district attorney, she will have worked 32 years there. Last July, she received a raise to $240,739.20 annually. Her pension not only is based on her salary. She’s also allowed to include her $12,000-a-year automobile allowance in the calculation.
Estimated pension (if she retires at the end of her current term as D.A.): $225,467.04
Estimated pension (if elected mayor and retires after two terms running the city): $210,386.76
Dumanis was elected as a judge in 1994 and served until she became district attorney eight years later.
Her pension won’t be based on her pay as a judge, however. It will be based on what judges are paid when she retires. So even though she hasn’t been a judge since 2002, if she retires in 2014 she’ll receive a pension based on what a judge earns then.
Dumanis took about 18 months off to run for district attorney, so she served 6.5 years as a judge.
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If current judicial salaries stay flat, Dumanis’ judicial pension will be based on a salary that’s $40,000 more than she ever made as a judge.
Estimated judicial pension: $24,136.52
City of San Diego
If Dumanis wins the mayor’s race and is re-elected four years later, she will be in charge of the city until 2020. We analyzed Dumanis’ city pension over eight years because it’s common for San Diego mayors to be re-elected and they have a two-term limit.
Her city pension, if she took one, would not be based on the $100,000 she would make as mayor. Instead, the city would pay her a pension based on her district attorney earnings, which are about $150,000 more.
This system, called reciprocity, allows public employees to credit their highest pensionable earnings to different governments’ pension systems. Reciprocity would spike Dumanis’ city pension by $43,000 a year more than if it were based on her mayoral salary.
Estimated city pension (if she accepted it and retired after two terms): $70,766.98
We based our analysis on pension formulas and salary information from San Diego County, the city of San Diego, the state and their affiliated retirement systems. Dumanis allowed access to her county pension records and provided some of her own information about her judicial pension.
The analysis is conservative. It doesn’t take into account potential judicial pay increases, any raises Dumanis could receive as district attorney or any pension cost of living increases.
Dumanis’ retirement payout shows the disincentives politicians have toward reforming pensions, said Marcia Fritz, a Northern California accountant and pension reform advocate who is working on a statewide ballot measure to trim retirement benefits.
“It takes a special person to be able to rein in costs when it affects you, too,” said Fritz, who studies pension payments statewide.
Before being contacted for this story, Fritz said she wasn’t aware that some former judges receive pensions based on active judges’ salaries. She said she knew of only a few elected officials in California who are entitled to a larger pension than Dumanis.
Dumanis called her own pension payment “sizable” and said it is part of the reason she wouldn’t accept a city pension if elected. She said she’s held that position since she started campaigning.
“I’m definitely not,” she said. “I have been very clear. From day one, I made that decision.”
Dumanis made a distinction between city pensions and the other pensions she will receive. It’s the city’s system, she said, that is unaffordable, unsustainable and needs reform.
She defended her pension as one earned after decades of hard work in public service. Her benefits were promised at a time when pensions made up for government salaries that were lower than the private sector. Partners at private law firms in the city, she said, earn much more than she does as district attorney.
Despite her own payout, her experience as a public employee and manager puts her in the best position of any of the candidates to enact pension reform, she said.
“I think no one can do it better than I can,” she said.
Pensions have been the singular issue in San Diego city politics for the better part of the last decade. Pension deals struck in 1996 and 2002 between unions and management led to numerous federal and state investigations, the resignation of a mayor and threats of bankruptcy.
San Diego has yet to emerge from its pension crisis. An initiative that would replace pensions with 401(k)-style retirements for all new city employees but police officers is expected to be a key battle during the June 2012 election, the same ballot as the mayoral primary.
Other candidates entitled to public pensions have to address the ballot measure, too. Democratic Congressman Bob Filner, who also served on the school board and City Council, opposes the measure. Democratic state Sen. Christine Kehoe and Republican Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher have yet to take a position. Republican City Councilman Carl DeMaio isn’t accepting a city pension and is a co-author of the measure and a major supporter. We examined Dumanis first because of her high salary and generous county benefit formula.
Dumanis opposes the 401(k) initiative. She argues city firefighters and lifeguards still should receive pensions.
But her own city pension reform proposal, she said, is likely to include the ballot measure’s other elements, such as 401(k)s for general city workers and reduced pensions for public safety workers.
Dumanis believes that future city elected officials should receive 401(k)s, though she said she wouldn’t accept one, either, if she were mayor.
Dumanis said she was surprised she is eligible to use her district attorney’s salary to determine her city pension.
“I think that’s even more outrageous that you can do that,” she said.