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Learn About Pensions

What is a pension?

A pension is a regular payment made during a person’s retirement from an investment fund that the person and their employer contributed to during the time he or she was working. Sonoma County’s pension system is a defined benefit plan, which means each employee gets a fixed, pre-determined benefit upon retirement based on factors such as years of service, retirement age, and salary.

Who manages Sonoma County Pensions?

Like one-third of other counties in California, Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association (SCERA) operates a local pension system, and is governed by a nine-member Board that includes members of the public, active and retired Sonoma County employees who are plan members, and the publicly elected County Treasurer. SCERA is not a part of CalPERS, which is the state’s retirement system.

How do employee pensions get funded?

Public pension systems like SCERA have three main funding sources: employee contributions, employer contributions, and investment returns. It is a common misunderstanding that the County pays the bulk of pension expenses. In fact, the largest funding source consistently is investment returns.

contributions + investments = benefits + expenses

How much does the County Pay for Pensions Annually?

In Fiscal Year 2015-16, the county’s annual pension costs totaled $107.6M, which included $61.8M to fund the pension system, $42.2M for pension bond payments, and a $3.5M additional payment towards unfunded liability

How can the pensions system be changed?

It is commonly assumed that the Board of Supervisors has the ability to reform the pension system on their own. The reality is that there are a number of federal, state, and local laws and rules that restrict the Board’s options. Lowering benefits or adjusting how risk is shared between employer and employee, can only be achieved through changes to state legislation.

Pension System Quick Facts

  • # of retirees 4,812
  • Average retirement benefit $32,961 per year
    (Average of 17 years of service)
  • Average % employees contribute 11.67% of wages
  • Average employee contribution $10,107 per year
  • % of retirees receiving less than $50K/year over 80%

Achievements to reduce pension liability over the past five years include:

  • Decreased total unfunded pension liability
    By nearly $180m, or roughly 20%, over the past 5 years
  • Eliminated pension “spiking” practices
    To prevent inflated retirement benefits
  • Increased employee contributions
    Toward pensions and other retirement savings programs
  • Increased accountability
    And transparency with more reporting and a permanent independent citizens pension committee

Questions?

pensions@sonoma-county.org or (707) 565-2231
Download Pension Facts in  PDF format(PDF: 663 kB)

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Every Pension Dollar is:

61¢ Investment Income

25¢ Employer Contributions

14¢ Employee Contributions

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Items that do not increase pension benefits:

  • Overtime
  • Bonuses or any one-time payments
  • Unused vacation
  • County Paid Deferred Compensation
  • On-Call or Standby Premiums
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