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When a defendant who said he had AIDS slashed his throat in a Palo Alto courtroom one day in February, Supervising Deputy DA Jay Boyarsky remembers, “I had the bad timing of walking in after he did it, but before the paramedics got there.” Though Boyarsky is quick to note that sheriff’s deputies got the worst of it — blood covered their arms up to their elbows — the incident reminded the Santa Clara County deputy DA of the risks public defenders and prosecutors face. “It is something that we live with, with death threats and hate mail.” It’s that kind of physical danger and mental stress that has prompted a new state law granting counties the option of offering those lawyers better retirement benefits, similar to what’s given police officers and firefighters. Lawyers in Alameda and Santa Clara counties have asked their retirement systems to analyze the cost, but San Francisco Supervisor Matt Gonzalez has gone further. The former public defender introduced a charter amendment in May that would change retirement benefits for eligible lawyers and investigators. The amendment could be on the ballot for voter consideration as soon as November. Gonzalez contrasts lawyers in the Hall of Justice with those in the city attorney’s office, who he says typically have fewer cases and more administrative support. He adds that he’s known colleagues who have been assaulted by their clients. “That’s a very different realm to work in professionally than the civil courthouse.” Signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis in September, AB 2023 gives counties the ability to reclassify prosecutors, public defenders and public defender investigators as safety employees rather than miscellaneous or general employees, making them eligible for more generous retirement benefits. Cost is still a question. Given the current budget climate, no one expects counties to pump up retirement benefits unless they can do so without breaking the budget. But proponents suggest that the plan could save counties money by exempting eligible employees from Social Security and giving higher-paid attorneys incentive to retire. Counties could also negotiate concessions from employees — such as higher retirement contributions. Proponents also echo one of the bill’s stated intentions, that sweetening pensions would do wonders for recruitment and retention. Across the state, attorneys are asking their retirement systems to crunch the numbers, said Deputy DA James Shore, president of the Santa Clara County Government Attorneys Association. “I think everybody wants to see if it can work,” he said. Shore and others said there are potential benefits beyond money in the retiree’s pocket. Boyarsky suggests better retirement benefits might have persuaded attorneys to stay in the public sector during the dot-com boom. The DA’s office in Santa Clara County lost about 25 of its roughly 200 attorneys to private firms or Internet companies, he estimated. “For the most part they were DAs in their prime,” he said. Lawyers generally embrace the idea. But as it becomes more clear what the costs and trade-offs will be, there may be more debate, said a handful of local prosecutors and public defenders. “The first step in any given system is computing the cost,” then figuring out how it might be spread between employer and employee, said Senior Deputy DA Robert Chambers, a member of Alameda County’s retirement board. “Everybody says it would be great,” said Boyarsky, the Santa Clara County attorney. “The only debate would be if we’d have to forgo part or all of our raise,” which is expected in August. Deputy DA Brian Hast, who sits on the retirement board in Contra Costa County, said some lawyers would probably pick more money now over more money later. “The younger you are, the newer you are in the office, it’s more student loans, starting a family, buying a home,” Hast said. “When I first started in the office almost 19 years ago, retirement was the farthest thing from my mind.” People on the brink of retirement in the next couple of years might be inclined to leave even sooner if their pensions changed, Hast said. He noted that since Contra Costa County enhanced benefits for police officers and firefighters last year, “We’ve had quite a few people retire.” And when there was talk of layoffs in Santa Clara County recently, Boyarsky said the scuttlebutt around the office was that better retirement benefits would encourage older, higher-paid attorneys to retire sooner and spare younger attorneys from layoffs. Assistant DA John Dwyer, an officer of the Municipal Attorney’s Association of San Francisco, says switching plans would be “as close to the infamous win-win situation as you can find.” The group, which represents about 430 public attorneys citywide, has done its own fiscal analysis. It concluded switching plans could save the county money in Social Security contributions and, in some cases, leave take-home pay for employees essentially the same, or better, Dwyer said. He points to a provision of AB 2023 that would allow reclassified attorneys and investigators in San Francisco to be excluded from Social Security coverage. Those employees have up to $5,394 a year deducted from their paychecks now for the federal retirement program — and the county matches those contributions. If it didn’t have to pay those contributions, the city would save about $1 million per year, the association estimates. To offset any additional costs of the proposed plan, the attorneys association predicts lawyers will have to pay higher retirement contributions: 10 percent to 12 percent of their pre-tax salaries, up from 7.5 percent, Dwyer said. While Gonzalez’s draft amendment says attorneys would continue giving 7.5 percent of their pay toward retirement under the new plan, the supervisor concedes the contribution rate may be raised as high as 10 percent. “Obviously, given the economic constraints of this city, we’re interested in making the measure cost-neutral. That’s where we’re tinkering with it now.7″ But San Francisco’s conclusions won’t necessarily hold true elsewhere because retirement systems, contribution amounts and a host of other factors vary from county to county, Alameda Senior Deputy DA Chambers warned. Alameda and Santa Clara’s retirement systems are doing their own actuarial studies, at the prompting of attorneys there, Shore and Chambers said. The process hasn’t gotten quite as far in Contra Costa County, but the union that represents public defenders there has started to look at the costs, said Rollie Katz, supervising business agent for Public Employees Union, Local No. 1. Lawyers in San Francisco may get a better indication of what to expect soon. The Board of Supervisors has until July 15 to put Gonzalez’s charter amendment on the November ballot, said Deborah Muccino, assistant clerk to the city’s Rules Committee. Gonzalez estimates that 10 percent or fewer of San Francisco’s public defenders and district attorneys stay in those offices through retirement. “For those that do put in an entire career of service, I think measures like this are really important.”

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