If only they'd listened.

More than a decade ago, Bill Pollacek, then Contra Costa County treasurer, warned of an impending public employee pension crisis.

Few public officials across the state had taken the time to understand how the complex calculations at the core of retirement systems across California actually worked.

They were coming out of an era of rapid growth in investment returns. And many, starting with then-Gov. Gray Davis, were so beholden to labor unions that they blindly approved benefit increases with little regard -- or comprehension -- of the financial implications.

The dominoes starting falling in Sacramento in 1999 and soon spread across the state. One after another, local governments rushed to increase pension benefits, claiming they had to jump on the bandwagon so they could compete for the most talented workers.

Few stopped to think about whether they could afford it.

Pollacek did. He wasn't a shouter. Although he held elective office, he wasn't much of a politician, either. Rather, he was a calm, astute observer, meticulous financial analyst and tremendous teacher, who would educate anyone who wanted to listen.

In his Martinez office, he kept detailed records. Visitors, including reporters, who came to learn would receive a tutorial from a man generous with his time because he felt he needed to spread the word.


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He didn't object to public employees receiving reasonable pensions. Indeed, he was a modest beneficiary for two brief years. But he wanted retirement systems to use realistic accounting practices and safer investment assumptions.

As the county treasurer from 1999-2011, he automatically held a seat on the board of the Contra Costa Employees' Retirement Association. He saw the influence peddling first hand.

In 2002, he advised the county Board of Supervisors against granting higher pension benefits when the retirement system already faced growing shortfalls. He warned that pension rates would rapidly rise to make up for the deficits.

Back then, few listened. Today, most elected officials still haven't learned how public pension systems work. But some are starting to understand that there's a big problem -- one that wasn't solved by the so-called "reform" bill Gov. Jerry Brown signed last year.

Pollacek knew he had been right. He died unexpectedly last week from spinal meningitis just two years into his own retirement. He was 69. He often talked of the plans he and his wife, Nancy, had for traveling and enjoying their free time.

Yet, right to the end, until his hospitalization a few weeks ago, he was still trying to spread the word. He showed up at county retirement board meetings to watch the gamesmanship. He served as a valued adviser to some of the key players seriously analyzing the statewide problem.

Even in retirement, he wanted to contribute, to help make a difference. Without a doubt, he did.

IF YOU GO
A memorial for former Contra Costa County Treasurer Bill Pollacek will be held at 1 p.m. May 16 at Tulocay Funeral Home, 411 Combsville Road, Napa.