After 26 years with the Moraga Orinda Fire District, Pete Nowicki retired as chief with a pension of $241,000 per annum — 30 percent higher than his salary. Craig Bowen retired as chief of the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District with a pension of $284,000 per annum — 29 percent above his salary. How can this be possible?

Public safety employees receive a pension equal to 3 percent of their highest salary for every year of service but there are ways to "game" the system. Daniel Borenstein's columns of April 12 and May 3 detail how Nowicki and Bowen were able to increase their pensions.

Space does not allow for a recap of all the additives, but one deserves repeating. Bowen received a monthly car allowance of $700 and this increased his pension by $7,600 per annum.

It isn't just public safety employees who receive overly generous pensions. Generally, public-sector employees enjoy far better pensions than those in the private sector. It wasn't always like this. At one time both public and private sector employers provided defined benefit pensions, but many years ago the private sector began switching to 401(k) defined contribution plans to eliminate a build-up of future pension liability. Many companies that did not switch were later forced into bankruptcy partly because of these legacy costs.

For the most part, government entities did not make the switch. They not only kept the defined-benefit format, but politicians, under pressure from unions, kept increasing benefits time after time.

Many public entities now have unfunded liabilities that are becoming unmanageable. The city of Vallejo filed bankruptcy and more will follow unless changes are made.

The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors had a chance to remedy the situation with its largest fire union this year but failed to do so. The union agreed to delay salary increases for two years in exchange for keeping their overly generous benefit package as is. The spin by the supervisors was it was a victory for the taxpayers, but in fact supervisors simply avoided confronting the basic problem for another two years.

I think it is clear that few, if any, public agencies will solve this problem by themselves; it must be done on a statewide level. My suggestion is that the state pass a law that would put public pensions on a par with private pensions. Specifically, it would provide that the state and all public entities therein, except federal:

  • Would be prohibited from giving any employee a pension that was more than his or her average salary for the last three years.

  • Must change their retirement policy for all new employees, from defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plans. This would eliminate the build-up on any unfunded pension liabilities as to new employees.

    For this or a similar plan to get legs it is necessary for the public to become knowledgeable. The Times has written many editorials and Borenstein many columns on the subject, but the absence of any public outcry leads me to believe that not enough people read the editorial pages.

    What is needed is a series on the front page similar to the recent series on Assessor Gus Kramer. When enough voter/taxpayers become aware of the depth of the problem, we just might actually become a pressure group with enough power to get this done.

    Sutfin is a resident of Pleasant Hill.