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.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

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.

    This article relates to: Government, Must Reads, San Diego County Government, Scott Lewis on Politics

    Written by Scott Lewis

    I'm Scott Lewis, the editor in chief of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it's a blast!): @vosdscott.

    16 comments
    Richard Rider
    Richard Rider subscribermember

    This excellent article is NOT important because of Dave Roberts' alleged transgressions -- it's important because his notoriety draws people's attention (and VOICE's attention!) to the FAR larger problem of overly generous (and underfunded) public employee pensions, and some of the ways the system is gamed. This reciprocity issue is a prime example, and this little-known abuse has gone on for decades, even after reforms have been put in place.

    From a taxpayer standard, this generous retroactive benefit by the county for some part-time city service is TOTALLY unfunded.  Not a NICKEL has been put aside by the county for this windfall increase in the employee's pension, and of course the employee has paid zippo as well.  It is ONE HUNDRED PERCENT AN UNFUNDED PENSION LIABILITY.

    Richard Rider
    Richard Rider subscribermember

    Minor clarification:  The new San Diego elected officials don't get a defined benefit pension, but they (like all new city employees except the police who still get the old pension) get a HECK of a full matching 401k plan -- I believe it's 9% of pay annually.  An employee in a private sector 401k is fortunate to get a 4% match per year.  Many get only 50% of their contribution matched, and many more get no match at all -- or any retirement plan at all outside social security.

    As generous as the SD city 401k plan is, it has one HUGE benefit over the old defined benefit pensions -- no unfunded pension liability.

    Steven Croft
    Steven Croft subscriber

    It is interesting how money for retirement through Pensions and social security always end up stirring up emotions. I still believe everyone should have the opportunity to obtain a secure retirement.  Hopefully some day the tables will turn and all people will support and have the benefit of a secure retirement not just those with the most wealth and influence. It is amazing how some of the most financially secure people always campaign to cut out pensions for those with less means. It appears the car allowance being considered income toward retirement benefits is a benefit only to the Board of Supervisors and possibly a few others. it makes you wonder how that came to be. There is no way Mr. Roberts had any say in the retirement rule because it was from before his time. Maybe it would save money if the Supervisors were all provided a County Car instead of a car allowance along with anyone else who travels on County Business.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    It might be useful to report on the pension issue in the context of this type of thing only because an early end to one's career might bring something like the length of service issue into the light.  On the other hand, it might be useful to provide a bit more math in the article.  Pension calculations are not entirely clear to me, and I assume that they aren't clear to others.  The length of service could be a non-issue so long as the resulting salary is low.  If someone served the minimum time then I assume that the number is going to be much lower but by how much?  Provide more context such as the difference between 5 and 20 years of service.  On the other hand, I'm not in favor of someone losing a pension for making a mistake.  If you earned it over many years of working and then made a mistake then I see no reason to destroy someone's livelihood.  I'm not even clear if what happened here is even a big deal or not.  Even if we are talking about a crime, then the person serves their time, pays the fines but I still don't agree with losing a pension or being criticized about that specifically.  Compared to other situations that I have read about, this one seems like more of a non-issue to me.

    Scott Lewis
    Scott Lewis moderator administratormember

    @shawn fox I did not allege Roberts did anything wrong to get his pension. I don't think people know how the pensions work and this provided a window into explaining them. I'm not sure what you mean by the math. It's pretty straight forward: you multiply their years of service X the factor (in this case, by age 62 his will be 2.6%) X final compensation. In the county, that might look something like this: A person who retires at 62 with 20 years of service who earned a final average high compensation of $100,000 with the same factor gets an annual benefit of $52,000. If they are in the top tier, 3%, it would be $60,000 per year. 


    It's slightly more complicated than that. You can learn more here: http://www.sdcera.org/active_retirement_eligibility.htm

    lorisaldana
    lorisaldana subscriber

    @Shawn Fox- yes, the calculations do get complicated. Some take into account (for example) an employee's "2 consecutive years of highest salary" or sometimes 3, depending on which plan you are with. Which leads some people to try to "boost" their salaries in their final years, by going after promotions for "acting" (fill in the title), in short term positions that give them a bump in retirement.

    Many of those schemes and abuses were changed, legislatively, in recent years.

    Are their still abuses? Of course. In the same way Wall Street is full of people scheming to create work arounds, offering new and unregulated investment strategies, often local pension boards come up with creative ways to boost the pensions of those willing to play the game.

    But as others have noted: the national issue is not too MANY pensions, it is how FEW are now offered vs. any time in recent history. Many large companies that offered pensions have declared bankruptcy in recent years, leaving their pensioners with nothing- until the US federal insurance plan steps in to cover these private employees.

    And we need to consider how any retirement plan will manage the fact that people are living longer, often on less income to save/invest (esp. post Great Recession as wages are still stagnant), and will have more years in retirement than anyone thought possible when Social Security was created.

    Social Security & Medicare has worked well. Today, "older adults" are less likely to live in poverty than at any time in US history. However, single women with kids are now MORE likely to live in poverty, and statistically thinking, those women will live long lives with little if any savings for their later years.

    And if one of these women manage to get an entry level position with the City, in the "typing pool," it used to be they could count on a pension. No more. They also have no Social Security. All they have is a private 401(k) style plan that depends on Wall Street investing their money well for the long term... and we see how reliable that can be.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    It's interesting, as a retiree who has never been on the public payroll, to hear two people who have spent considerable time there rationalize the extent of the rewards for public service as though they weren't pretty generous by private sector standards.

    I don't know either Lori Saldana or Chris Brewster personally, but I know a bit about their careers; both served the public admirably.  That's not the point.  The rewards are really extraordinary and the public is increasingly and rightly concerned about how we will pay for them.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Bradshaw: Thanks for the nice comment regarding my service. I am OK debating the appropriateness of reciprocity and I don't think a car allowance should be credited to a pension. My concern is that Mr. Roberts is being singled out here. He is under scrutiny for other issues, but in this case is doing nothing untoward that I can see.

    As for pensions generally, when properly managed they work pretty well. In the case of the City of San Diego's system, the problems of chronic underfunding by the City have been rectified. (The employees always paid what was owed.) Assuming the fund achieves its minimum investment return assumptions (which it has historically significantly exceeded) the independent actuary projects a steadily increasing funding ratio reaching 90% in 2022 and 100% in 2028.

    I think a bigger issue we need to grapple with nationally is retirement security for everyone. 

    msginsd
    msginsd subscriber

    @Bill Bradshaw    Earning a lifetime pension for 2 years of service is robbery.  Plain and simple.  There is no justification for that.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Chris Brewster One of us just had a brain cramp.  When you say "The employees always paid what was owed", I seem to recollect there was a long period of time when the city was picking up a substantial portion of what was originally intended to be paid by employees.  It was called, I believe, "the offset".  Nice euphemism.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Bradshaw: What I meant by, "The employees always paid what was owed," is that employees were given a specific amount they were required to pay on each paycheck. They were not allowed to take a pension payment holiday, but the City did indeed decide in several instances to contribute less than they were obligated to pay, which resulted in large part in the under-funding.I don't have a great insight into the issue of the offset, but here's how I remember it. Employees negotiating for pay increases were presented with an option by their employer (the City). Instead of giving you a 1% raise (for example), how about we agree to cover some equivalent in your required pension payment. This was a negotiated benefit and I think it was probably done to allow politicians to say, "We didn't raise their pay," when in fact it had an equivalent impact (although not to their pensionable pay). Whatever the negotiated obligation was, the employees had no way to boycott it.I'm not sure if that part is a lot different from private sector employers deciding what percent of match they will provide to a 401(k) (if any).

    lorisaldana
    lorisaldana subscriber

    Mr. Bradshaw- thank you for your remarks. As for state service:

    I received no pension for my state legislative service. And since I took a leave of absence from teaching while in office, and also worked reduced hours prior to my election to be a caregiver for my mother and grandmother, I now have a reduced teaching contract which means a permanently reduced pension.

    Moreover, teachers do not pay into social security. So, like San Diego city employees, most of us have only pensions for retirement, along with personal savings.

    When Gov. Schwarzenegger proposed doing away with teacher pensions via ballot measure, my staff and I did some research: 75% of teachers are women, and acc to STRS (state teacher retirement system) most will live LONGER than women in general (wish someone would research that fact).

    Therefore, most women would outlive the proposed pension benefits Schwarzenegger, DeMaio and others proposed, going from defined benefits to defined contributions.

    Those facts in part helped discourage state voters from supporting the proposed changes put on the ballot that year.

    I assure you- no typical classroom teacher retires wealthy, but many school administrators do (and many more of them are male). The same for other public employees: most receive under $30k yr. in retirement,whereas administrators, their supervisors, and elected officials at local level often leave with pensions which may be equal to their full salary. Add perks such as auto allowance and it can add up to a very comfortable retirement.

    lorisaldana
    lorisaldana subscriber

    Agreed, Chris. While it's troubling to hear and read these allegations, it appears Roberts has earned his pension credits fairly and legally. So why drag pensions into this report? There's a system in place, and he is utilizing it as designed. If you disagree with having the car allowance in the pension program, discuss it in a separate article.

    Better to point out that often, the problem with pensions, such as with city of San Diego, is when they are not properly designed, funded and/or managed by the people responsible for those tasks. And it was never the moderately compensated employees who chose to underfund San Diego's pension. Those decisions were made by people at a higher pay grade.

    I issue many keyboarding certificates in my computer lab, often to people applying to the county and city of San Diego. Many of them are applying to the police academy (I believe police officers still retain a pension). However, if they are applying for an administrative city position I point out the lack of both pension and Social Security.

    Most people are unaware of this lack of a long-term savings plan that is not linked to private investment fluctuations. Many are women who statistically will live long lives, and may wish they had some other type of plan in place.

    Bottom line: casting aspersions on public pensions per se makes no sense and has hurt many working people in the long run in San Diego. Just because a story focusses on a person in office earning a pension, who may have acted badly, doesn't mean the pensions are the problem.

    (And in the interest of full disclosure: as a community college professor I pay into a pension plan)

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    So to clarify, with exception of the car allowance credit, Mr. Roberts would be treated exactly the same as any other “new” county employee with a similar length of prior service at another public employer with reciprocity of benefits, such as a sheriff’s deputy or clerk? Then, with respect to credit for the car allowance, he would be treated exactly the same as all other County Supervisors? If there’s a case to be made about the issue of reciprocity or credit for the car allowance, by all means make it. But I see no reason to pile on with respect to Mr. Roberts if he’s getting the same treatment vis-à-vis retirement as his peers.

    Scott Lewis
    Scott Lewis moderator administratormember

    @Chris Brewster I don't think people understand how these pensions are calculated, how reciprocity works or that the car allowance factors into pensions for the supervisors. I take issue with your comparison to a sheriff's deputy or clerk. Solana Beach City Council is a part-time job that last year paid barely $8,500 a year. Learning about reciprocity was stunning to me when I first covered the increase to the county supervisors' car allowance many years ago and I learned about Ron Roberts' reciprocity from his service at the city of San Diego. 

    To think that eight years of service in a part time job paying $8500 and two years on the Board of Supervisors earns you a lifetime pension was surprising to me and I will remind people about it situations like it as long as I can.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Lewis: Inasmuch as a major reason for the founding of VOSD was a perception by the founding funder that other news outlets did a poor job of covering pension issues, I do expect you to have a laser focus on that particular issue. I have no problem with discussions about the appropriateness of reciprocity or the use of a car allowance to increase pension benefits. My concern is that this article may well leave some with a perception that in addition to any other transgressions Mr. Roberts may (or may not) be guilty of, he is also working the pension system to his advantage. For me this might have been a reasonable article upon him taking office or last month, for example, but in context of the non-pension issues raised in the article, it seems to me to be piling on.