Deputy dog

Unaffordable. Outrageous. Wrong.

There’s no other way to describe last week’s arbitration panel ruling that county taxpayers should pick up the tab for yet another chunk of the already-lucrative benefit packages received by sheriff’s deputies when they retire. If enacted, the ruling will make wider and deeper the already crater-sized fiscal crisis we face in Sacramento County.

The ruling is a straight-out victory for the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, a powerful local union with friends in high places. The total price tag—$11 million ($4.4 million more than the county budgeted for this year)—is one that taxpayers simply should not be asked to pay.

Everybody knows that deputies—along with correctional officers and other law-enforcement-related employees—are famous for having generous salaries and fat pensions. As it turns out, they also contribute very little to their own retirement. Taxpayers in Sacramento County already were paying half of the 9 percent of deputies’ salaries that goes toward retirement benefits. Now the arbitration panel has ruled that taxpayers should foot the bill for the entire employee portion.

Why should we? We’ve heard plenty about how the brave men and women of law enforcement deserve special treatment for providing a crucial service in our communities. Nobody denies the importance of their work or the dangers they sometimes face. But the claim that deputies deserve special treatment when it comes to pay and benefits … well, it just rings false. After all, this is the work these people chose to do, and it doesn’t require extensive education, such as a post-graduate degree. There are many government workers who do difficult jobs, and they don’t get these kinds of benefits.

What’s most disturbing about all this is that it comes at a time of deep financial crisis in municipalities across the state. Sacramento County already was forced to make $75 million in hard cuts last spring, and the sheriff whined about cuts in his department. Now, the county faces an anticipated $40 million budget shortfall for next year. Indeed, the supervisors voted last week to drain a $17 million so-called rainy-day account as the only way to deal with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s choice to refund money to people who paid the full vehicle license fee before his inauguration-day repeal.

So, now it may be time to cut the sheriff’s budget to make up for what is lost to the retirement raise. At the union’s behest, decisions about pay and benefits were turned over to an arbitration board years ago, allegedly to remove the politics. But taxpayer organizations managed to pass a companion measure that gave supervisors the ability to put arbitration rulings they deem questionable on the ballot.

This is one of those rulings. We’re very pleased the supervisors have chosen put the matter on the November 2004 ballot and let Sacramento County’s citizens decide for themselves what is fair—and affordable—when it comes to deputy retirement benefits.