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Petaluma takes action on pension reform

The Petaluma City Council Monday approved an updated contract with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System or CalPERS that includes a change requiring firefighters to increase employee pension contributions.

Shackled to a bloated and unfunded pension liability, the contract represents the near end of the city’s process to increase employee contributions to the retirement fund. The endeavor is one step in Petaluma’s daunting push to tackle rising pension costs, what has become a significant share of the city’s overall budget.

“It’s a clean-up from the contract signed a few months ago,” said Assistant City Manager Brian Cochran. “(Firefighters) will begin paying a piece for the city’s CalPERS share, which syncs them up to others.”

The agreement applies to members of the International Association of Firefighters’ bargaining unit, number 7, which Cochran said encompasses the “vast majority” of firefighters and paramedics in Petaluma.

Nearly all other bargaining groups have reached similar negotiations, with the firefighters representing the near end of the city’s effort to increase employee cost shares to PERS across the board.

The pension crisis burdens cities across the state, strapping municipalities with increased shares of the cost burden after CalPERS failed to adequately bankroll the growing retirement fund. At a special meeting held on the topic Jan. 13, the city’s finance director Cory Garberolio said Petaluma’s PERS expense is $9 million this year.

Costs are only expected to grow, she said, inching upwards by $1.5 million each year until 2032. The city’s steps to curtail the growing burden include providing a lower tier of benefits for employees, a one-time $7.5 million city contribution and negotiating with employees to contribute a larger share of their pension costs.

The contract approved Monday evening at the virtual council meeting raises applicable employee contributions gradually over a three-step phased process until reaching 11% to 12% in January 2021. It is expected to save the city about $75,000 annually.

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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