By Ventura County Supervisor Peter Foy.

After a disease is discovered and isolated, medical researchers search for the first person who got sick to hopefully provide a clue about how the disease was spread. That single individual is always known by one name: Patient Zero.

If Sacramento leaders take forensic awareness of the state’s overwhelming pension and obligation costs and search for how it all began, they’ll trace them straight to Ventura County – the Patient Zero of California’s $500 billion (and growing) unfunded liabilities.

This is because of the “Ventura Decision” – a unanimous 1997 California Supreme Court ruling that dramatically altered the way so-called “37 Act” counties tabulate pensionable salary, expanding it to include bonuses, health care costs, uniform allowances and other forms of pay.

The original case was filed by Ventura County deputy sheriffs arguing that in addition to salary, several additional items (like selling back accrued vacation time), must be counted in every individual pension. The ruling was made despite many years of collective bargaining that this compensation would not be treated as pensionable.

Overnight, the ruling spawned a massive pension shortfall that has forced many counties to spend from hard-earned reserves or fall further and further behind in meeting their pension obligations.

While Ventura County has managed its finances far better than the state and other counties, pension costs as a percentage of Ventura’s budget have grown from one percent in 1999 to 17 percent today. This is not an increase of 16 percent. It is 1,600 percent. Today, more than $160 million is spent only on county pension costs.

Why so much? Although the state’s 10th largest county, Ventura is home to more public retirees making $200,000 than any other county. Two former officials are now collecting almost $300,000 annually, an amount that not only has an annual cost-of-living guarantee, but is greater than their highest-ever salary.

Think about that. Ventura pays these two individuals more in retirement than they ever made in work.

While these runaway costs are embarrassing, they are more to the fact unsustainable. While this is bad for civil servants and retirees in Ventura, the larger truth is, it threatens all of us and will require sweeping reform.

This month will see an historic first step.

A countywide initiative for this November’s ballot would take this issue – for the first time – directly to the people and ask for their support in crafting a workable, long-term solution.

Driven by the Ventura County Taxpayers Association and others, this referendum would produce mainstream, common-sense reforms. I am proud to support them.

A primary provision would end pensions for newly elected Ventura County officials and new county hires and place them into a 401(k)-style system now available to almost every working person.

Some suggest elected officials or even public employees will never act against their self-interest, this is an idea whose time has come. Those in public life have an obligation to support the publicinterest.

Just as important is the initiative’s establishment of a guaranteed death and disability benefit for all public safety personnel, including all county sheriffs and firefighters.

By separating this vital benefit from the pension fund and guaranteeing it, this will safeguard those most at risk and their families who have the most to lose by permanently protecting them from the pension instability occurring all throughout our state and nation.

At a time when so many of our fellow citizens are seeing their personal savings and retirement plans depleted, the last thing we should do is maintain a two-tier system in our society – one for government, and one for everybody else.

This initiative has an opportunity to succeed because the old order is giving way to a new reality challenging assumptions and refuting premises upon which the entire structure was built.

This will succeed because people know a new truth: There is simply no way government can meet these permanent and growing payouts no matter how much is demanded of businesses, extracted from taxpayers or leveraged in financial markets.

Having played a decisive role in how we got here, the Ventura County may be ground zero for something just as dramatic: A second “Ventura Decision” – only this time, a vote of the people for personal responsibility, public accountability and fundamental fairness.

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Supervisor Peter Foy represents Ventura County’s 4th District.