In Impoverished El Monte, Public Retirees Live Like Kings

Retired El Monte City Manager James Mussenden is enjoying such a sweet ride in retirement that he dare not bring it up to his golfing buddies.

“The guys I play golf with, they get very angry about my pension because they don’t have anything like it,” he recently told the L.A. Times.

He's not kidding. Mussenden, 66, is one of hundreds of former city employees collecting not one but two pensions, courtesy of taxpayers in a town where one in four residents live in poverty. He brings in more than $216,000 per year with cost-of-living increases and full health coverage. And he’s not alone.

Harold O. Johanson, 58, who served as city manager from 2006 to 2009 is collecting $250,000 per year, putting him in the top one-hundredth of one percent of all public pension recipients in California. Since retiring, he’s raked in around $3 million.

“I have to admit that we made the mistake back then, and I have to admit that I make too much money now, but what can I do?” To make up for it, he says he volunteers and donates to charities.

El Monte got rid of its supplemental pension plans in 2008, but only for new retirees. The Legislature has also since prohibited such legal double-dipping.

It was too little, too late for El Monte. The city’s retirement costs now total $16.5 million, equivalent to 28% of the city’s general fund. Among California’s 10 largest cities, only San Jose paid that much as a percent of its general fund. Los Angeles is at 20%.

Had it not been for an extra levy on property taxes, El Monte’s pensions would have likely bankrupted the city years ago. Instead, it has stayed afloat because of an extra $663 a year paid by struggling homeowners on top of their normal taxes. Of the 88 cities in L.A. County, El Monte is one of just 12 with such a surcharge for public employee pensions.

In many ways, El Monte is the face of a broken system which can be traced back nearly two decades. The decisions that brought El Monte and other municipalities to where they are today occurred when times were good, said Johanson. “We could afford it.” Now, City Manager Jesus Gomez says the city’s mounting pension costs are keeping him up at night.

They’re probably keeping Mussenden’s golfing buddies awake too.