San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District officials say they have taken important steps to reform the district's pension system.
The comments come after the latest series of stories this past week detailing the pensions being paid to former fire district administrators.
San Ramon Valley Fire has three of the top five public employee pension recipients in Contra Costa County.
Former chief Craig Bowen, who retired two years ago at the age of 51, tops the list. He now receives $291,000 a year.
Christopher Suter, the district's former deputy chief, is third. He takes in $267,000 a year in pension.
Richard Probert, another former chief, is fifth. He earns $255,000 a year.
The retirement benefits have drawn the ire of citizens as well as government watchdog groups.
"It's a huge problem countywide. It's having an adverse effect on services. We can't afford it," said Kris Hunt, executive director of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association.
Hunt said the San Ramon fire district's board of directors in the past has OK'd some lucrative agreements with retiring employees.
"They have approved some very, very generous contracts that covered everything, including the kitchen sink," she said.
Bowen, Suter and Probert could not be reached for comment.
Fire Chief Richard Price, who was hired 18 months ago, said the board has made significant changes in its pension policies after these retirement benefits first came to light a year ago.
That's when an article by Daniel Borenstein in the Contra Costa Times detailed the district and other agencies' pensions.
The San Ramon fire district was harshly criticized at a public hearing in August 2009 for approving the contracts. Residents also complained three of the five directors—Nick Dickson, Jennifer Price and Tom Linari—work for other fire protection agencies. They questioned whether the board majority was more loyal to taxpayers or to fellow firefighters.
Last October, the directors approved 10 changes in the pension system. Chief Price said two of them in particular were important.
One was the requirement that all new contracts be reviewed by an outside legal counsel. The fire chief said pension law is complex and board members were negotiating with union leaders who understand the laws much better.
"It wasn't really equal representation. This levels the playing field," Price said.
Board president Roxanne Lindsay said when the directors approved the contracts years ago, they weren't aware of how much things such as benefits could affect pensions.
"We felt at the time it was the best decision for the district, but we didn't have the information we now have," said Lindsay.
The board also approved a policy that requires them to be informed every time a retiree starts to draw a pension.
Price explained the current pensions are not paid from the district's budget. They are paid by the Contra Costa County Employee Retirement Association, an organization that pools pension benefits from 17 agencies. The fire district board isn't automatically notified when that association starts to pay a pension.
"The board was surprised when they learned about the pensions, but now they won't be surprised again," Price said.
The board also eliminated the vehicle allowance and standby pay for the chief's position. It also put stricter standards on other measures employees use to "spike" their final year's salary and increase their pension.
Bowen, for example, added unused vacation time, sick pay and other items to raise his final salary from $222,000 to $284,000. If he draws his current pension for 30 years, it could cost taxpayers a total of $8.5 million.
However, Price said the main reason Bowen, Suter and Probert earn high pensions is because they worked at the same place for three decades.
"They started very young and stayed with the same agency. That's how they ended up on the list," Price said.
He also notes public employees put money into their pension fund, sometimes as much as 20 percent of their salary.
"I feel really confident about the changes," added Lindsay. "I feel we faced some serious challenges and we took immediate action."
Hunt praised the fire district for implementing the reforms.
"They have made some changes in the San Ramon Valley to lock the barn door," she said.
However, Hunt said while the retirement association hands out the current pensions, the district is still pouring money into the pension funds of employees now working there.
Countywide, she said, for every dollar a public agency pays an employee, another 81 cents is spent on benefits. Of that money, 41 cents is dedicated to pensions.
Hunt said pension reform is needed at the state level. She said there needs to be strict state guidelines that local agencies have to meet.
The San Ramon fire district serves 170,000 residents over 155 square miles in San Ramon, Danville, Alamo, Blackhawk, Diablo and the Tassajara Valley. Its annual budget is $56 million with 92 percent of its revenue coming from property tax.
Price said about 12 percent of district homeowner's property tax bills goes to the fire district. He said that percentage hasn't increased in more than 30 years.