The number of retired public employees in the CalPERS system with annual pensions of $100,000 or more grew 63 percent since 2012, according to a report released Wednesday.
Riverside County, Long Beach, Anaheim, Torrance and Riverside made the list of the 25 public agencies with the most pensioners receiving six-figure retirement pay, Transparent California reported. Almost 23,000 CalPERS retirees collected pensions of at least $100,000 in 2016, the government watchdog group found.
The rise in $100,000 pensions underscores the importance of making public employee pension data public, Robert Fellner, Transparent California’s research director, said in a news release.
Transparent California is an offshoot of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, which describes itself as a “nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank that promotes policy ideas consistent with the principles of limited government, individual liberty and free markets.”
A spokesman for Californians for Retirement Security, a coalition of unions and other groups representing public employee retirees, took aim at Transparent California.
“‘Transparent California is neither transparent nor in California,” Steve Maviglio said. “It’s a Nevada based anti-union group that refuses to disclose its donors, so the irony of publishing the salaries of teachers, firefighters, school bus drivers and other public servants shouldn’t be lost on anyone.”
Maviglio added: “This distorted data represents less than 2 percent of all of the state’s retirees, most of whom had long careers in top level positions in some of the most expensive areas of the state. The average state pension is approximately $2,700 per month and the beneficiaries often do not receive Social Security benefits. That’s hardly enough to live on in many areas of our state.”
The data for Transparent California’s report came from public records, Fellner said.
“We believe it is important for Californians to have access to complete information about how their tax dollars are being spent, which is why we published the entirety of the CalPERS report as it was provided to us in an easily accessible and searchable format so that anyone interested in the data can analyze it for themselves.”
Transparent California’s searchable database is at www.transparentcalifornia.com.
CalPERS spokeswoman Amy Morgan said the average CalPERS pension for a public safety employee is $33,528, while the average pension for a nonpublic safety retiree is $29,088.
“Overall only 3 percent of CalPERS service retirees receive pensions of $100,000 per year or more and are executives who hold seats in either city or county offices, or are physicians, or senior managers for police and fire departments,” she said.
The three largest CalPERS pensions went to former Solano County administrator Michael Johnson, $390,485; ex-Los Angeles Sanitation District General Manager Stephen Maguin, $345,417; and former UCLA professor Joaquin Fuster, $335,180, according to Transparent California.
The average pension for a “full-career” CalPERS retiree was $66,400, the group reported.
According to Transparent California, Santa Clara County had the most six-figure CalPERS pensions in 2016 with 861. Riverside County was third with 469, Long Beach was fourth with 360 and Santa Ana and Anaheim were fifth and sixth with 270 and 269, respectively.
Other Southern California public agencies in the top 25 include Riverside, Santa Monica, Glendale, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Burbank, Pasadena and Newport Beach.
Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek did not find the numbers shocking. He noted that similarly sized cities in the area, such as Burbank and Glendale, spent similar amounts on retirees in 2016. He attributed Pasadena’s ranking to the city’s efforts to stay competitive.
“Pasadena’s practice in the past has been to pay its personnel in the top 25 percentile in order to get the best people,” Tornek said, adding the city abandoned the practice “some time ago, because we can’t afford it anymore.”
Pasadena, already facing deficits, expects significant leaps in pension obligations — from $30 million to $80 million per year — in the next two decades.
Still, Tornek said Transparent California’s ranking doesn’t factor in cost reductions over the years as labor groups, particularly police and fire, took salary cuts to preserve higher pension payouts.
Residents expect to receive high-quality services, he said.
“If you have chest pains and an EMT shows up to take care of you, you want to make sure he gets there fast, that he is well-equipped, well-trained and that he saves your life,” Tornek said. “At that point, you’re not getting upset that he is getting paid in the top 25th percentile of the region.
When data from non-CalPERS retirement systems are factored in, almost 53,000 retired public employees got pensions worth at least $100,000 in 2016, Transparent California found.
The group’s report comes amid an ongoing debate about public employee retirement benefits.
Many cities and counties in California are having to chip in more for CalPERS, taking up taxpayer dollars that could be used for public services. And alarm bells have sounded for years about the size and sustainability of unfunded liabilities for current and future retirees.
To rein in future pension costs, state lawmakers in 2013 passed legislation that gives lower pension benefits to new employees.
Besides pensions, Transparent California also focuses on public employee salaries. In May, the group focused on what it described as exorbitant compensation, including $257,000 in overtime paid to a Riverside Public Utilities dispatcher.
Staff Writer Jason Henry contributed to this report.