Craig Bowen, the San Ramon Valley fire chief who retired in 2008, collects an annual pension of $310,000 a year, in part due to egregious pension spiking that persists in Contra Costa County.

His predecessor, Richard Probert, who retired in 2002, receives $273,000 a year. Deputy Chief Christopher Suter and Assistant Chief Michael Sylvia, both 2008 retirees, annually collect $285,000 and $268,000, respectively.

The San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District pension excesses were exposed in this column in 2009. Since then, a newly elected board majority has called for reform. So one would think they would welcome legislation Gov. Jerry Brown signed last year to curb such abuses.

Instead, on May 16, the fire district filed legal papers supporting labor unions challenging the new law. Specifically, the district backed a union motion to block the state attorney general from defending the anti-spiking rules. That would have left no one in court to speak for the law because no local agency has stepped forward.

After I questioned fire district Director Jay Kerr and board President Matt Stamey on Thursday, the district abruptly withdrew its support of the union motion. Kerr and Stamey told me that they support the new law and didn't understand the effect of the court filing.

Once they explained the advice they received from their attorney, William Ross, it was obvious why they were confused. Ross says the local retirement association administering the pension, not the state, should defend the law.


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He ignores that the association had refused to take sides, that the judge had asked the state to step in and that the attorney general's office has a responsibility to defend state laws. State involvement is also appropriate because the Contra Costa case could soon be combined with similar legal challenges in Alameda, Marin and Merced counties.

Nowhere is the need for the new law more apparent than San Ramon Valley. The fire district provides its workers pensions administered by the Contra Costa County Employees' Retirement Association, one of 20 county-level systems in the state affected by the law.

The retirement association enforces rules for what types of income can be counted when calculating pensions. For example, Bowen was allowed to include base salary plus enhancements like management pay, stand-by pay, auto allowances and cash value of unused vacation and administrative leave. He boosted his years of service by adding unused sick leave time.

As a result, Bowen increased his pension 46 percent. Similarly, Probert boosted his pension 24 percent, Suter 49 percent and Sylvia 48 percent.

In 2009, a pension attorney hired by the fire district concluded that the retirement association was counting too much income in the calculations, violating state court rulings. The association's attorney later agreed.

But the association board refused to correct the rules for existing employees. Now, the new law requires it to do so. That's why unions are trying to block it.

The improper spiking adds an average 10 percent to pensions for firefighters hired before 2011 and helps drive up district contributions to the retirement association. That's the portion at stake in this case.

It's just part of the district's soaring annual pension contributions, which will soon be about as much as the cost of salaries. Until now, San Ramon Valley firefighters have not shared the burden. Under a new labor agreement, they will pick up about 4 percent of the cost July 1, increasing to about 12 percent by 2015.

If the district needs pension savings and directors support the new law, why did Ross, the district's attorney, side with the unions? It's not the first time Ross seemed to align with firefighters against his client's best interest. In 2009, he blessed the Rodeo-Hercules fire district board's suspension of one of its own elected members, an outspoken director in disfavor with firefighters.

The suspension clearly violated the director's First Amendment rights. He sued. The fire district filed a cross-complaint against Ross. In the end the district and Ross split the cost of a $29,861 settlement payment and the district was forced to apologize to the director.

This time, the financial stakes are much greater.

Daniel Borenstein is a staff columnist and editorial writer. Reach him at 925-943-8248 or dborenstein@bayareanewsgroup.com. On Twitter: @BorensteinDan.