Taxpayers Group Re-invigorated With Pension Issue

Like a dog on the hunt, the Ventura County Taxpayers Association has latched onto the issue of high-dollar county pensions.

The tax-exempt group had been relatively quiet since the early 1990s, when fiery taxpayer advocate Jere Robings was dismissed as its chief executive in a fallout with the board of directors.

But its leaders have been nothing if not persistent in the past couple years. They sued to get the names of more than 300 six-figure pensioners retired from county government, relentlessly pushed the Ventura County Board of Supervisors to make reforms, and have talked up their cause before chambers of commerce and Rotary clubs.

Members began pension reform after learning of the lavish benefits in the city of Bell, said board Chairman David Grau.

They’re disappointed in the supervisors’ response so far but say they at least forced the discussion.

“We’ve succeeded in shining the light,” said Kevin McAtee, a Ventura appraiser who has worked on the issue.

The taxpayers group was established in the 1950s, a period when it was primarily supported by the county’s oil and agricultural industries, former board President Lindsay Nielson said.

“It was a watchdog more than anything else,” said Nielson, who served during the contentious 1990s, when Robings tackled the now-defunct financial “perks” that county supervisors received.

Nielson describes the association as a quasi grand jury to oversee government, not an anti-tax organization.

“It wasn’t just an old boys’ club,” he said. “They tried to say we want good government, and we want the best bang for our buck.”

About 200 people belong to the group today, a number that the current CEO Dick Thomson says is growing steadily after a period of stagnation. The association reduced dues from $60 to $25 and hopes to double membership to 400 this year, Thomson said.

After decades in which the CEO was the face of the organization, the board is putting members out front and trying to start strong committees in each city in the county, Thomson said.

The volunteer-run association makes endorsements on initiatives going to the voters but not political candidates. Its budget totals $38,000 this year, including Thomson’s contract for $18,000.

Members tend to be owners of small businesses, officials at large corporations and agricultural interests, Thomson said. He said, though, that the pension issue is helping build interest across the economic spectrum.

Members began pension reform after learning of the lavish benefits in the city of Bell, said board Chairman David Grau.

Members began working on pension reform almost 18 months ago after learning of the lavish benefits in the city of Bell, said board Chairman David Grau, a retired Dole vice president who has done a lot of the research and speechmaking.

A pension committee formed to tackle the issue in county government. Along with McAtee and Grau, the panel includes attorney Jim McDermott, rancher Bill Wilson and Dennis Gaiser, a retiree and former electronics manufacturer in Ventura.

Grau said the first task was trying to understand the world of government pensions.

“It’s very confusing to the taxpayer looking from the outside,” he said.

From there, the group has talked with unions and managers, debated the issue, researched costs and publicized its findings.

Grau said his surfing buddies — who include ex-government employees — tell him county officials will just outwait him. But Grau said he’s not going away, seeing hope in responses from County Executive Officer Mike Powers.

The association’s timing might be right, said Herb Gooch, professor of political science at California Lutheran University.

“There seems to be some movement, and it is, so to speak, on the agenda,” he said. “I’m relatively optimistic.”