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In more robust economic times, it's doubtful a forum on government worker pensions would have nearly filled the pews at the 300-seat Glaser Center on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa.

But with taxpayer-paid retirement costs for county employees up 360 percent since 2000 by county estimates, people from all walks showed up Thursday to ask what can be done.

"Houston, we have a problem," said Jack Atkin, Sonoma County Taxpayers Association president.

Atkin was among the panelists at the educational forum hosted by Sonoma County Supervisors Shirlee Zane and David Rabbitt.

Atkin and Rabbitt were joined on the panel by Assemblyman Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa; Sonoma State University Professor Robert Eyler; Cynthia Murray, a former Marin County supervisor and head of the North Bay Leadership Council; and Bill Steck, former director of Service Employees International Union Local 1021. Zane moderated.

All agreed officials can't wait for the economy to improve to address the ballooning costs. Something must be done, and soon, to put Sonoma County's pension system on a more sustainable track.

The key is focusing on building long-term stability, said Eyler, who heads SSU's economics department. Raising taxes would only mask the problem.

"Financial markets won't solve the problem, don't fixate on a point in time," Eyler said.

Both employees and government employers need to negotiate compromises to get where they need to go, Eyler said.

"It's good county employees are paying something but maybe it's not enough to get us out of the hole," said Murray.

Increased retirement ages for some employees, more flexibility for local governments to negotiate with unions and limiting post-retirement employment benefits are some solutions proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown that state Democrats believe will help, said Allen, who represents a portion of Sonoma and Solano counties and all of Napa County.

"We must protect lower-paid workers while being fair to higher-paid workers," Allen said.

Supervisor Rabbitt recommended setting a county maximum debt policy and taking into account a person's total compensation rather than just salary when setting limits.

"We need to be the generation not known as being selfish," Rabbitt said.

But agencies can't simply rescind compensation promises made to public employees, said Steck.

Atkin pointed out that all members of the Sonoma County Employees' Retirement Association are pensioners themselves.

The audience broke into applause.

Audience questions addressed outcry over pensions that for some employees exceed their prior salary.

An audience member asked Allen why Democrats haven't come out in favor of the governor's plan, unlike Republicans who have shown outspoken support.

Andrea Regan, a private investor from Cotati, said she came as a taxpayer. "I'm concerned they're going to raise our taxes and we're not going to get services," Regan said.

A former stock and commodities trader, Stephen Radeljic, 39, of Santa Rosa showed up because he said it's everyone's job to be informed.

"Two years ago no one wanted to touch this issue," Radeljic said. "Now something will be done. I'm an optimist."

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.

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This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: April 7, 2012

Jack Atkin is president of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association. His last name was misspelled in the print edition of this story.

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