© Copyright 2012, Bay Area News Group
Call it the Bay Area's $200K club.
More than 60 retired local government employees are members of the coveted group, each guaranteed pensions of more than $200,000 a year -- for the rest of their lives.
But Gov. Jerry Brown wants to stop the club from growing in the future, as part of a controversial plan legislators will vote on Friday to reform California's costly pension system.
Just who's on the list? An analysis by this newspaper of thousands of pension records dispels one recurring myth: Union workers aren't the ones benefiting from the fattest of the six-figure pensions guaranteed by California taxpayers. It's the nonunion bosses.
San Joaquin County's former superintendent of schools Frederick Wentworth and San Ramon Valley's former Fire Chief Craig Bowen top the list, raking in more than $295,000 each. Former Santa Clara District Attorney George Kennedy is part of the club. So is Santa Clara County's former superintendent of schools Colleen Wilcox and ex-San Jose/Evergreen Community College Chancellor Rosa Perez, both of whom left under a cloud. Former San Jose Police Chief William Lansdowne made the club, even though he's the current police chief taking home another $200,000 a year in San Diego.
San Leandro Unified's superintendent Christine Lim receives a $244,000 pension through the state Teacher's Retirement System after the school board terminated her contract in 2010.
"That's more than she ever made while she was an employee of the school district," board member Mike Katz-Lacabe said on Thursday. "I think that's the reason there's a call for pension reform. When people can make more in retirement than when they were employed, that's a problem."
The newspaper's analysis of four pension systems that cover Bay Area government employees showed 66 retirees receive nearly a combined $15 million a year, averaging pensions of $223,000 each. Alameda and San Mateo counties were not included in the analysis because their officials demanded to be paid for their pension data.
While the newspaper's analysis found dozens of members of the $200K club in the Bay Area, nothing compared to the pension that Bruce Melkenhorst, a retired city administrator from the tiny Los Angeles County city of Vernon, takes home: $526,000 a year.
Brown's reform proposal would cap the amount new government employees salaries can count toward pensions at a high of $110,100 for most workers and $132,120 for those who do not contribute to Social Security.
The caps would eventually -- over a generation or more -- eliminate eye-popping pensions. But the public shouldn't look for the $200K club to disappear for decades, said Chris Burdick, a lawyer in Marin County who specializes in pension law.
"What someone is getting now is what they are going to be for life, and that includes people still working today," Burdick said.
The pension cap would only affect government workers hired after Jan. 1. So, people working for the government now can still join the $200K club when they retire. None of the reform proposals scheduled to be voted on Friday will change that because public employees rights to vested benefits have long been upheld by the state Supreme Court, Burdick said.
The reforms are not meant to be an instant fix, said a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
"As we go through the years, you presumably will have several thousand employees who retire and new employees who take their place," said the spokesman, Mark Hedlund. "For every year you go through that, you have more people on different tiers with lower benefits and the (pension) cap in place."
One member of the $200K club, retired Santa Clara County deputy district attorney Robert J. Masterson, acknowledged Thursday that his $208,000 pension is "substantial," but he's only been collecting it for three years. The 83-year-old retiree worked half his life for the DA but understands why the state is pushing for reforms.
"I don't think anybody including myself thought the state's finances would be heading over the cliff," he said.
Critics point out that Brown's cap proposal would only affect a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of state and local government workers.
The proposed pension reforms are a "good going forward, but it's a long-term solution when we still have short-term problems," said Katz-Lacabe, the San Leandro school board member. "This will affect future generations."
Lim's final salary was not immediately available, nor were documents showing how her pension was calculated. She could not be reached for comment.
Kennedy, Santa Clara County's former district attorney, is the one retired elected official on the list, with a pension of $223,000 based on nearly 40 years of government employment, records show.
Like Kennedy, other members of the $200K club worked for local governments for decades. Under the current system, public employees can pad their pensions by buying years of service, a practice known as "air time." Brown's proposals would ban the practice for new employees, but it won't stop current employees from the controversial perk.
Burdick, the pension expert, said the practice is common and he believed people drawing high pensions like members of the $200K club were likely to have taken advantage of the perk.
"You get more out of it than you pay in," Burdick said.
Staff Writers Rebecca Parr, Tracy Seipel, John Woolfolk and Steven Harmon contributed to this report. Contact Thomas Peele at Twitter.com/thomas_peele