Editorial: The sheriff who is not retired

·3 min read
Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff participates in the Anti-Defamation League's Diversity Festival and Walk Against Hate for Ventura County on Feb. 26 in Thousand Oaks.
Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff participates in the Anti-Defamation League's Diversity Festival and Walk Against Hate for Ventura County on Feb. 26 in Thousand Oaks.

The issue of public employee pensions can stir considerable debate and emotion, often triggered by examples what any disinterested party would consider to be gross excesses — workers receiving more in pension benefits than they ever received while actually performing their jobs, for example, or some benefits so high that they exceed the allowable IRS cap of $265,000.

The fact is that these instances are rare, and for the most part government pensions provide nothing more than a reasonable level of retirement security to people who’ve spent their careers in public service. But because of high-profile excesses, this is an issue in which optics matter.

In that regard, it doesn’t help to learn that Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff has chosen to begin collecting his county pension of $180,000 a year even while holding down a job that pays him $332,000 a year.

To be clear, there is nothing illegal or sneaky about this arrangement. Fryhoff worked in the Sheriff’s Office for 32 years before being elected to the top job last fall. He put in a long career, the last several years as a top manager with great responsibilities. He’s entitled to a comfortable retirement.

But the reality is, he is not retired. He chose to seek this promotion and worked hard to persuade voters to award it to him. Taxpayers are now compensating him well for the job; based on county income tax returns, that $332,000 a year salary alone puts the sheriff in the top 4% of all county taxpayers.

Fryhoff is taking advantage of a 2017 state law that expressly allows an elected official to hold public office and still collect county pension benefits, as long as the official stops accruing additional pension benefits. That law carves out an exception to a ban on what is known as “double dipping,” which prevents employees from receiving a pension from one job and then going to work in a different job that is covered by the same pension plan.

It should be noted that the previous sheriff, Bill Ayub, was presented with the same opportunity, but chose to defer his retirement benefits.

Fryhoff’s decision to begin collecting benefits means, for the rest of his life, his pension will be based on his final years of salary as a top manager, rather than on his substantially higher salary as sheriff. Given that he’s only 52, Fryhoff is almost certainly correct in saying that while he is receiving more compensation now, he will ultimately receive less money — although, of course, that will depend on his life span and how long he remains sheriff.

Still, the optics are terrible. Some Ventura County taxpayers who are paying out more than half their income for rent or mortgage payments could be forgiven some measure of resentment over their half-a-million-dollar-a-year sheriff.

A decade ago, public concern over the cost of funding pensions for state and local governments was so great that the Legislature enacted sweeping reforms to require government employees to contribute more out of their paychecks and to ban abusive practices that spiked pension benefits.

Still, there are critics of the very notion of public employee pensions. Some are motivated by legitimate concerns about limiting the share of government budgets that must be set aside for retirement costs, but there is also a certain amount of public anger fueled by misinformation and, to a degree, petty envy.

Nine years ago, a ballot initiative qualified in Ventura County that sought to eliminate pensions for county employees entirely. It might have passed, had a judge not blocked it from the ballot on the grounds that it would have been found invalid under state law.

Pension excesses, both real and perceived, fuel public resentment. A great many will see this arrangement as an excess. It would be illegal for any other county employee, in any non-elected job. As the county’s top law enforcement officer, Sheriff Fryhoff should have waited to begin collecting his pension until after he actually retired.

This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: Editorial: The sheriff who is not retired