Kern County taxpayers spend millions of dollars a year on pensions. Over the years, those costs have significantly increased compared to the increases in employee salaries.
Over the last eight years, pension costs have increased nearly 50% while salary costs have increased 15%. One of the reasons is the costs of taking care of retired firefighters. “They work very hard at what they do, particularly our first responders, but it is a major cost of running business here,” said Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop.
Like most California government agencies, the county has two systems for calculating pensions — a special formula for first responders and another formula for everyone else. That first responder system was modified in 2012.
Firefighters and law enforcement officers hired before 2012 earn retirement pay under the so-called “Three at 50” formula. They can retire at age 50 with retirement pay equal to 3 percent of their annual salary for each year they worked. The benefit is limited to 90% of their highest year’s salary.
For example, a fire captain who works for the department for 30 years, retires at age 50 and earned $95,500 base pay in his best year would make an annual pension of $85,950.
Here’s how this would break down:
- 3% of $95,500 is $2,865.
- $2,865 multiplied by 30 years of service gives him an annual pension of $85,950.
There are 381 county firefighters that fall under the “Three at 50” formula. Since the formula changed in 2012, there are only 123 firefighters that fall under the “Two at 50” formula.
Even though it’s only a one percent reduction in the formula, tens of thousands of dollars can be saved for every firefighter annually.
For example, that same fire captain who works for the department for 30 years, retires at age 50 and earned $95,500 base pay in his best year would make an annual pension of $57,300.
- 2% of $95,500 is $1,910.
- $1,910 multiplied by 30 years of service gives him an annual pension of $57,300.
Some scheduled overtime can count toward pension. Additionally, other bonus pay can count.
All firefighters get a uniform allowance and some get bilingual pay. There are dozens of categories of “special allowances” for which some firefighters might qualify.
Not all of that pay counts toward a pension but it adds up.
Public records show 145 of retired firefighters make more than $100,000 every year from their pensions. That’s 26% of retired firefighters.
That’s why the county is trying to tackle the massive amounts of overtime by aligning the overtime calculation to federal standards. It’s important to note that not all overtime is pensionable. But because some overtime is mandatory, firefighters can earn a pension higher than their base salary.
There are 521 full-time firefighters are employed by the county. Through public records, we were able to find there are more retirees than full-time firefighters. We found 552 retired firefighters receive pensions.
Through the California Public Records Act, we were able to find county firefighters pension checks are being sent to 187 U.S. zip codes and all over the world. Although most are in California, checks are being sent to retirees as far away as France.
The county pays about $66.5 million annually to fund salaries and overtime costs for our 521 active duty firefighters. The county also pays more than $41 million dollars a year to our 552 retired firefighters.One firefighter has already collected more than $2 million in pension. After a firefighter dies, their spouse receives a years pension as a death benefit.