Santa Barbara County’s unfunded pension liability up 73%

September 6, 2023


Santa Barbara County’s unfunded pension liability increased 73% in one year, primarily because of poorly performing investments and higher than predicted cost of living increases.

The Santa Barbara County Employees’ Retirement System reported an unfunded pension debt of $817 million for the fiscal year ending in 2024, up from $470 million a year earlier, according to the Annual Actuarial Valuation report released in Nov. 2022. The county is more than $800 million short in the trust account set aside to pay former employees their monthly pensions and benefits.

The county pension fund generally receives money from employee contributions, employer contributions and returns on investments. Unfunded liability gains are partially due to a 1.77% loss in the market value of assets, compared with a 7% assumed gain in investments.

In 2018, the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury “found there were substantial liquidity and solvency risks to the sustainability of many of the public defined benefit pension plans in the county.” Left unchecked, the county’s unfunded liability could force it to reduce services and raise taxes.

As the county’s unfunded pension liabilities soar, the number of retirees receiving more than $200,000 in pension and benefits a year is growing, according to Transparent California.

The top Santa Barbara County pensioners in 2022:

Ken Shemwell, undersheriff – $256,936

James Anderson, sheriff – $255,627

James Stewart, psychiatrist – $251,737

Patrick McKinley, assistant district attorney – $246,084

Samuel Gross, chief deputy sheriff – $245,561

Robert Geis, auditor-controller – $245,482

Norman E Horsley, chief deputy sheriff – $245,168

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These crazy pension costs are the result of plain old envy. The “dot com” boom of 1999 caused public employees (especially public safety employees) to ask and demand richer pensions, and they got it. “Dot com” money disappeared, but not taxpayer-funded pension costs. Go to and check your city, to see the abuse. It’s crazy; remember, the abuse starts at the Board of Supervisor level. Be careful who you vote for, especially avoid those who vote to give themselves huge raises, that’s a clue. Now, why did you vote for Bruce Gibson, again?

I find it odd that the government is allowed to gamble with secured funds, thus making them a risk to the taxpayers. Oh yes their pensions are guaranteed but having money for public works is not. When the roads get bad enough, everyone will start asking questions.

Simply means that the county does not have enough current money to cover the pensions of every single employee, no matter their age. It’s only a problem right now because so many baby boomers are retiring. In 15 years the fund will be more than solvent. The stock market has its ups and downs but has always outpaced any other form of investment. California pensions have been the best in the nation for 50 years. Nevertheless, the doomsday sayers like to spread panic.

I would love to see the numbers you are using to support the conclusion of insolvency being temporary.

You are correct in part, if you’re referring to Cal PERS.

However, some local defined benefit pension funds are in much worse shape financially compared to CalPERS. San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara County are two of those cases. Years ago, Orange County faced a similar predicament, and had to do major restructuring. Also, the city of San Diego was faced with the same issue. CalPERS on the other hand is the largest private pension fund in the world and is “reasonably” solvent but it has been better.

One more thing, when you hear about a defined benefit pension fund only being 70, or 75% funded, that means they could fully fund 70 or 75% of every member at their full rate, today. That would require of course that everybody retires at the exact same time and goes out the door, today. What is the likelihood of that happening? A pension fund therefore does not have to be 100% funded to be healthy. That is because people leave the system, and new employees, contributors, come into the system. I do believe however that all defined benefit pension funds need some restructuring for long-term sustainability. Also, some of the local salaries of city and county employees are absolutely outrageous! One only need to look at the transparent California site to see that. That is especially true of “safety” formulas that have historically been paying 3% at age 50. Safety employees should have to contribute a significantly higher percentage of monthly pay than non-safety employees. Just my opinion.

A lot of thee contracts were made in good times back in 2018… and the new economic conditions make honoring these deals very difficult….

The pensions these public sector/government employees receive is perfect example of how the taxpayers are ripped off in order to cover these ridiculous outlays. No one can justify these numbers and comparing pensions to other counties is just part of the rigged game the political class plays.