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The burgeoning scandal consuming County Supervisor Dave Roberts’ office threw into sharp relief one of the nicest benefits supervisors get: generous car allowances that also enhance their lifelong pensions.
If Roberts were to quit today, he would have already earned a lifelong pension from the County of San Diego even though he’s only worked there two years.
Roberts is accused of maintaining an inappropriate relationship with a young staffer who served in part as Roberts’ driver. Roberts’ representative confirmed for me that the staffer, who earned $47,000 in base pay, did drive the supervisor around in a county-owned vehicle even though Roberts collected a $12,000-a-year car allowance precisely to maintain his own transportation.
“It’s inaccurate to describe him as a driver or chauffeur,” said spokesman Gary Gartner. “His assignment was to efficiently get Supervisor Roberts to the six to 10 appointments — including government meetings — a day that he had.”
Gartner told me that the staffer, Harold Meza, “served as a body person, which is done for many government officials around the state.”
Gartner declined to comment when I asked if it were true that the supervisor had a romantic relationship with the staffer. He said that Roberts would be speaking about the controversy Tuesday.
What’s not in doubt is whether Roberts collected a car allowance while he regularly used a driver, who also used a county vehicle. And that car allowance will benefit Roberts as long as he lives.
The $12,000-a-year car allowance factors into the supervisors’ lifelong pensions when they retire. It adds to the supervisors’ final compensation when retirement officials calculate their pensions.
And officials at the county’s pension system, the San Diego County Employees’ Retirement Association, confirmed that even though Roberts has only been a supervisor for two years, he has already earned that pension. Employees at the County of San Diego earn a pension after five years of service but Roberts got an assist from earlier service.
His years on the Solana Beach City Council give him the equivalent of 10 years of service at the county because of a reciprocity agreement between CalPERS, which services Solana Beach’s pensions, and the county.
What’s more, he managed to get a nicer pension than new county employees who started at the same time.
On Dec. 1, 2012, the state imposed a cap on the amount of compensation that can be used to calculate the retirement benefit. For the county, that meant new employees could not retire until age 67 and when they do, they’d have a retirement factor of 2.5 percent times the number of years worked. Pensions are calculated using the highest salary a person makes, multiplied by a small percentage and then multiplied by how many years the employee works.
Roberts, however, got the earlier, nicer deal. He can retire at 62 and his retirement factor will be 2.6 percent.
Should he leave office right now, after only serving as a county supervisor for two years, he’d get a lifetime annual pension of more than $40,000 a year. In addition, he would get health care benefits and regular cost-of-living increases.
Were he put in at the same rate as new employees throughout the county, he’d get $39,000 a year and would have to wait until age 67 to retire.
Update: Just to drive this home a bit: Supervisor Roberts’ stipend as a Solana Beach City Councilmember was $8,550 a year. Normally, it takes five years to earn a pension at the county. But because of reciprocity, the eight years Roberts served in the City Council helped him qualify for a pension as a county supervisor. That means, were he to quit today, Roberts would be able to collect a pension every year worth more than four times what he earned every year as a part-time City Councilman.
County supervisors already earn salaries almost double what San Diego City Council members receive. Members of the City Council are paid $75,000 and new ones no longer get pensions. Some who could have gotten pensions refused them. Most City Council members also buckle under enormous pressure to reject car allowances.
The supervisors have much higher salaries and much nicer benefits, including a still impressive pension and car allowance.
Roberts need only look at his colleague, Supervisor Bill Horn, as a model of how to survive scandals. But if he does not make it through this, the open seat will be quite attractive.
NBC San Diego’s Wendy Fry contributed to this report.