Pension talk

A look at public-safety retirement packages now that Chico’s top cop is retiring

When CN&R reporter Andre Byik drew my attention to a vague media advisory about a press conference at which Chief Mike O’Brien was “to address the future of the Chico Police Department,” it didn’t take long for the two of us to figure out that the city’s top cop was announcing his retirement.

My question: How much longer would he stick around as the city searches for his successor? I guessed six months—enough time for City Manager Mark Orme to launch a national search, hold interviews and whittle down a list of candidates.

I was off by about a month. As you’ll see in Byik’s report this week, which provides color from the chief reflecting on his tenure but also focuses on the task before Orme, O’Brien’s last day will be June 5. That’s almost exactly five years from the date he was sworn in to lead the department.

We weren’t caught off guard because we knew O’Brien was already fully vested under the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS). Public safety officials who were hired before 2013 and spend 30 years on the job earn 90 percent of their highest salary for life. The caveat: They must be at least 50 years old. Unlike a certain former police chief, O’Brien didn’t retire the moment he became eligible for that max payout. Upon retirement, he’ll have been in law enforcement for 31 years, 28 of them in Chico.

Multiple factors likely played into his decision to stay on for a bit. For starters, I suspect he wanted to see his department through the roughest patches brought on by the city’s massive, unprecedented population surge post-Camp Fire. O’Brien also probably wanted to keep his word that he’d stay on the job for “five to six years,” as he told the CN&R upon his swearing in.

Further incentive may have come from watching a few of his predecessors get a public lashing for jumping ship after serving less than three years when they hit that magical birthday. I’m referring to former Chief Kirk Trostle (June 2012-December 2014), who retired nine days after turning 50. He didn’t make it to 30 years of service, but his pension is nothing to sneeze at. In 2014, he raked in $109,589 but now makes more than $123,421, thanks to cost-of-living adjustments.

Think that’s outrageous? Trostle’s predecessor, Mike Maloney (September 2009-April 2012), made more than $150,000 in 2013, his first full year on the sidelines. In 2018, the last year for which records are available, he made $162,114. He, too, retired when he turned 50. Then he started working at Butte College. In 2017, he earned $103,597 in regular pay at the community college. That same year, he also made $147,622 in so-called “other pay.” I haven’t found records for a second pension under the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), but it looks like he’s eligible.

I don’t doubt that policing is excruciatingly stressful work that often ages people beyond their years. Case in point: Before I knew otherwise, I thought Maloney was a decade older than his true age—albeit genetics probably have something to do with that.

Still, these retirement packages seem excessive, especially considering the cost of living in Butte County and the city’s increasingly crushing pension debt ($141 million as of 2018). Am I wrong?