A conservative Southern California group has launched a public pension database that includes retirees’ names, their annual pension payments, years of service, last employer and year of retirement.
The state’s largest pension fund, CalPERS, is on the verge of abandoning a similar project. But the Tustin-based California Public Policy Center has activated its own database and says it will continuously update TransparentCalifornia.com whenever it receives new data.
So far the site allows users to search for detailed 2012 pension information from 37 California public pension funds including CalPERS and CalSTRS, plus individual salary data for state and local government agencies. The group is seeking pension information from 38 other systems. The courts several years ago ruled that such information is public record.
Center President Mark Bucher said he hopes the data will “empower anyone interested in this issue … We’re trying to put the power in the hands of the people, in the hands of candidates running for office.”
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Harvey Robinson, president of the 28,000-member Retired Public Employees Association of California, said that pensioners will be “outraged” as word about the database spreads. “We certainly are concerned about that information creating vulnerability for retirees,” he said.
A center press release announcing the database notes that nearly 100 former government employees received a quarter-million dollars or more in annual pension payments in 2012, that more than 1,700 CalPERS pensioners received at least $150,000 from the fund and that California’s two university systems paid 27,115 retired public employees pensions of $100,000 or more.
“It’s indefensible,” Bucher said.
CalPERS had considered posting a similar database on its website last year. Fund leaders reasoned that it could better control the data, which some pension-change advocates used on their own websites to highlight six-figure retirement payouts while ignoring that hundreds of thousands of pensioners receive far less.
Retiree groups blasted the idea, fearing that making the information so readily available would invite scam artists to prey on retirees. After lawmakers said they wanted to look into the matter, CalPERS delayed launching the website. Then last month, fund spokesman Brad Pacheco said that staff would propose killing the project. CalPERS’ board will hear the recommendation at its mid-February board meeting.
Asked whether he was concerned that the pension database would put seniors in harm’s way, Bucher said, “A judge made the decision this is public information, not me.”
Besides data on the center’s website, pension funds must disclose retirees’ base allowances and annual cost-of-living adjustments, retirement dates, benefit formulas and final compensation.
Bucher said that the center started building the pension database and a companion salary database last August. Funding, he said, “came from a lot of individual donors.”
When asked to name a few prominent donors, Bucher said, “I don’t think your readers would know any of them.”