IN THE statewide debate over public employee pensions, there are few numbers more misleading and misused than the average benefit for retirees of the California Public Employees' Retirement Association.

CalPERS loves to circulate the statistic. So do politicians and unions representing workers. "Twenty-five hundred dollars a month is the average state employee pension," state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a member of the CalPERS board, told a UC Berkeley conference of academics and journalists last month.

As the public pension debate heats up in coming weeks, you will certainly hear that more often. Indeed, there's a corollary number that pulls even harder on the heartstrings. When the pensions of local government employees covered by CalPERS are added in, the average pension is $2,220 a month.

It leaves the impression that the average public employee now retires after a full career into a life of poverty, living off less than $27,000 a year. That's simply not so.

In fact, CalPERS data shows the average career public employee, who put in at least 30 years of service and retired in the 2008-09 fiscal year, collected a starting pension of $67,000 a year, or 2.5 times the advertised figure. The higher number is buried deep in the retirement system's financial statement and never makes it to the promotional material CalPERS hands out.

The pension numbers are even higher for the separate local retirement systems that cover employees of the two East Bay county governments. The average was $85,500 for career workers who retired in 2009 from the Contra Costa system, and $83,000 from Alameda County.

A majority of these workers also receive Social Security, which could add, very roughly, about another $19,000 to the annual pension of career worker, pushing the average starting retirement for the two local systems into triple digits, and for CalPERS to about $86,000 a year, or more than three times the touted number.

So how does CalPERS come up with $27,000 a year?

  • Time period: The CalPERS number averages in the pensions of all current retirees, regardless of when they stopped working. It doesn't separate out those who retired since 1999, when state and local governments started significantly increasing pension benefits for their workers.

  • Years worked: The CalPERS number combines employees who worked just five years with those who put in more than 30 years. The average years of service is 20.2, hardly a full working career. (In contrast, Social Security, for example, calculates benefits based on a working career of 35 years, and reduces the payments for those who worked less time.)

  • Social Security: The CalPERS number does not include Social Security benefits. About 65 percent of CalPERS members are also entitled to Social Security benefits for their years of public service.

    As government leaders argue public employee pension reform, it's essential that we have an honest debate with useful numbers. Retirees who left work under more reasonable retirement benefits before 1999 are not relevant. The debate should be about the generous pension formulas currently in use.

    Moreover, averages that lump together five-year workers with 35-year employees are not helpful. Those who worked less than a full career in the public sector should have other sources of retirement income as well. Taxpayers should not be on the hook for their full retirement.

    It's important to keep in mind that most of those taxpayers, who contribute the bulk of the funding for public employee pension systems, do not enjoy retirement benefits anywhere close to the public sector. They often work 35 years or more. They want to know how public employee pensions compare to theirs.

    It's time for CalPERS to give them a direct answer.

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