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Old Mendocino County Courthouse Around 1915

California County Pension Debt


California County Pension Funds


21 CA Counties

Choices -


Massive Write-Off


California's Public Retirement Systems

About 4.5 million state and local government employees and retirees participate in at least one of 131 state and local retirement systems (see note 1 below) . About 500,000 are in "Defined Contribution" systems and 4 million (8 times more) are in "Defined Benefit" Pension Funds. See The Pension Benefit for definitions of these two types of systems.

Total Pension Liability - California State and Local Government Pension Funds - 2011

As long as the employing government pays its full share to Defined Contribution systems it has no unfunded retirement debt. However, even if it pays its full annual contribution to its Defined Benefit Pension Funds it can develop significant unfunded pension debt.

Three-fourths of total pension obligations is held by the big statewide systems - the California Public Employees Retirement System ("CalPERS"), California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS), etc. One-fourth is held by local government Pension Funds that do not participate in the big statewide-funds.

Two-thirds of the total pension obligations of local government Pension Funds is held by County Pension Funds, one-third by City and other types of local government Funds. County Pension Funds have one-sixth of all state and local government pension obligations.

Twenty-One County Pension Funds

Most California Counties participate in the huge statewide CalPERS system, but 21 have their own independent Retirement Systems, 20 of which are organized under the state's County Employees Retirement Law (CERL - also known as the "1937 Act"). One (San Luis Obispo) is in a legal category by itself. The map shows all 21 non-CalPERS counties. These are the 20 CERL counties:

Map of the 21 California County Pension Funds
Alameda Mendocino San Mateo
Contra Costa Merced Santa Barbara
Fresno Orange Sonoma
Imperial Sacramento Stanislaus
Kern San Bernardino Tulare
Los Angeles San Diego Ventura
Marin San Joaquin  

The 21 County Pension Funds fall into three "natural" regions - Northern California-Bay Area, Central Valley, and Southern California. Although San Luis Obispo (shown in yellow) is not a "CERL" county it is a County Pension Fund and would probably be more "naturally" associated with the Southern California counties along the coast.

These 21 counties have nearly 80% of California's total population - from 10 million in LA County to fewer than 100,000 in Mendocino County.

The 20 County Pension Funds organized under CERL are named ...

(Name of County) County Employees Retirement Association

... as in "Alameda County Employees Retirement Association" - "Contra Costa Employees Retirement Association", etc. They are usually referred to as ...

(County Initials) CERA

... as in "ACERA", "CCCERA" (sometimes called CoCoCERA), etc. The "CERA" is pronounced "Sarah" as in "A - Sarah" meaning Alameda County's Pension Organization, etc. (See Note 2 below)

These 20 County Pension Funds are governed by independent Retirement Boards. Most have 9 Directors, four appointed by the County Board of Supervisors, four elected by employees or retirees, and usually the County Treasurer is automatically a Director.

Relative Size of the 21 Counties Pension Fund's Pension Obligation Total Pension Fund Pension Obligations (AAL) = $155 Billion
County Board's of Supervisors enter into collective bargaining agreements with the various groups of employees - mostly unions. These agreements establish what the pension benefit will be. The Retirement Board then is supposed to establish the funding plan to pay those pensions. (see Organization of Pension Benefits for more information about this relationship between Counties and Retirement Boards).

There's a huge range in the size of the 21 County Pension Funds. LACERA (Los Angelews County) represents 1/3 of the total pension obligations of these 21 County Systems. If LA County were a state it would have the 21st largest State Pension Fund.

The three largest County Funds - LA, Orange and San Diego (all in coastal Southern California) - together hold half of the total obligations of the 21 County Funds.

Mendocino County's Pension Fund is - by far - the smallest of the 21 County Funds - 1% the size of LACERA.


NOTE 1: The California State Controller's Office produces a wide-ranging series of annual compilations of the finances of various local and state government entities - for various state government agencies and the state overall, cities, counties, school districts, special districts - and public retirement systems.(Note 1 below) The most recent public retirement systems annual report is for fiscal year 2011.

NOTE 2: This can lead to confussion when talking about different County Pension Funds. For example there are 3 "MCERA's" - Marin, Mendocino, and Merced. I've seen pension reformers from different counties at first not realizing they were talking about different "MCERA's". To prevent confusion I think it's better to say "Marin-Sarah" and "Mendo-Sarah" and so on for those counties that could be similarly confused (Sacramento, Sonoma and Stanislaus for example). But - most people just say (for example" "M-Sarah". Oh well ...

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