Calif. firefighters, cops are taking their pensions to Idaho

Calif. firefighters, cops are taking their pensions to Idaho

The recent local leader election in this quiet, conservative town near Boise didn't depend on which candidate supports Donald Trump more or who is against abortion. The key issue? Who was the least Californian.

Both strong conservative candidates were refugees from the Golden State. In 2003, the current person came from Orange County with just his clothes. His opponent, an old firefighter from Santa Clara County in California who retired with a big one-figure pension paid for by taxpayers there.

That made him and the many retired police officers and firefighters from California moving into town seem almost like socialists to old people. For them, it's hard to accept visitors with money they got from the government.

On election day in December, Mayor Jason Pierce spoke and said that it's silly for them to call themselves Republicans. "A lot of people who move from California don't understand how much [left-wing] ideas they are bringing with them."

And that’s the irony: People in California may like it or not, but public pension money from that state is what keeps the economy going in this small-government town with many Republicans.

This is happening all over the West, as many career workers of California - people who put their entire working lives making state and local government smooth - choose that they do not want to live in California anymore.

A Times review of 2022 data, the latest year we have details for, showed that nearly 90,00 members in California's biggest group who look after public worker money got their pay don't stay inside state. The people who left California got over $3.6 billion from state pensions.

And that’s only CalPERS members. The total doesn't include people who retired from local governments with their own pension plans, like Los Angeles County and the city of Los Angeles.

Almost all the top out-of-state destinations in the CalPERS data are low-tax havens: Lake Tahoe in Nevada, the desert areas near Reno and Lake Havasu in Arizona.

But, no place outside California got more money from CalPERS than 83616 in Eagle. This suburb of Boise has about 30,00 people and it's really far away too!

New things come in under a big bridge with many signs and a huge picture of an eagle without feathers. Finding Californian expats is simple.

In the first days of December, signs for Pierce and his opponent Brad Pike filled the street.

In 2003, Pierce came to Yorba Linda with a spouse and two small kids but without any work. He wanted so much to raise his kids in a place that fit with what he believed, he was ready to start over and build up an IT job.

As mayor, Pierce said he often gets calls from new Californians who see trash on the streets. They do not clean it up themselves and ask him why their town does not hire more maintenance workers. "So, you want your taxes to increase," he asked. "Do you want more government?"

He has a hard time understanding why retired cops and firefighters, who often get more money from their pensions in California than local workers earn as salary do not think of themselves like the main right-wing group.

"They want to give the same kind of benefits for officers and state workers here," said Pierce. "And it seems like you just made a big money problem in California and now you want to do the same thing here?"

His opponent, Pike, said he felt hurt moving from one state where people blamed him for being too strict to another where they think he's not stiff enough.

He has been a Republican for 41 years, said. He left California partly because of the arrogance and feeling like he was too good to be wrong from Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom and his predecessor Jerry Brown who ran the state with no real opposition or caring about how Californians felt like him at all.

When he got to Idaho, it felt like the first time in a long while that he could "breathe out," say. He began to relax and take pleasure from life more freely.

So it was surprising when the mayor's fans hit him from another side, calling him a "fake Republican" and suggesting he was secretly part of Democrats.

"I came to this place looking for anything that is not the liberal, socialistic view of government in California," Pike said.

Pike was asked if he thinks unfair for him to complain about socialism when his state gives him a $123,000 yearly pension. He said that anyone who asks these questions is just jealous of the situation.

"This is a free place, you can choose to go where ever want," Pike said. "It's okay for me to say that I took my retirement money from CalPERS and moved it to Idaho."

A pension is a sure money you get for life after retiring. Long time ago, they used to be a normal part of work jobs in big businesses and government in America. But they're rarely heard of in the private sector now.

Instead, companies give retirement saving plans like 401(k)s. The employee can put money into it, without paying taxes and hope to have a big savings when they retire. But no matter what happens with those investments, when the worker retires the company is free.

In 2000, while pensions were quickly disappearing elsewhere. California's leader Gray Davis signed an act to give state employees one of the biggest and kindest pension plans ever made.

It let over 200,00 workers retire at age of 55 and receive more than half their biggest pay for the rest of time. California Highway Patrol officers did even better: They could stop working at 50 and get up to 90% of their highest salary for the rest of their lives.

Governments of county and local areas in California, who were not part of the state's plan soon accepted same rules. This was to stop their best workers from leaving for jobs at the state level.

People who backed the rule - mainly unions for public workers - said it wouldn't make any extra expenses on taxpayers in California. To pay for it, the state workers' retirement fund will make smart investments. The money would increase quickly enough to fully cover the cost of this bill later.

That’s not what happened. Several drops in the stock market - including when bubbles broke or house prices fell a lot in 2008 - ruined good predictions made before, and local governments have taken years to give away lots of taxpayers' money into their plans that they’ve been running since then.

In 2016, Davis said he made a mistake by signing the law. But not much has changed since then. This means that each year, many people in their 50s from California leave government jobs with a lot of free time and lots of money. A lot of them are searching for better opportunities.

In September, Jorge Grajeda retired from the Long Beach Police Department. He was born in Mexico and went to Southern California with his family when he was 5 years old. In the beginning, he was living like a true American when he worked as a police officer. But over time his job got more work and bigger responsibilities, making him see how much of their money taxes would take away from them.

Grajeda said he was paying around $40,000 each year in income tax. He felt it wasn't giving him much back.

"I didn't receive discounted housing or cheaper utility bills that the government gives to people with low income," Grajeda said. "No one helped me."

He felt really happy and proud to be a police officer. But that didn't last long after the whole big talk in 2014 about how badly some cops treat people, which happened when an unarmed Black boy named Michael Brown was shot by a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri.

"People used to say hello and wave when we went out," or they would pay for our coffee, but in the last 10 years almost all of that stopped. That's what Grajeda said. Now, he said "it's all about race."

Every time you stop or pull someone over in their vehicle, they call you out as a racist. Grajeda said this shouldn't happen. It should be about right and wrong. If you do something wrong, there are results.

Police recruitment was affected by the changing politics, making cops already working put in lots of extra hours. This is according to Grajeda's statement. The money was big, but the long hours were making him tired. That's when the sergeant he was working patrol with talked about a small town in Idaho called Eagle. He thought that maybe life would be easier there, Grajeda imagined.

Now, Grajeda has four houses in the area around Eagle which is called Treasure Valley. He lives in one with his family and lets out the other three. He never thought he could buy so much land, but in Idaho before the pandemic started it was cheap and interest rates were low. When seemed like a great time to invest money buying places, he said yes.

"I was feeling so tired, upset and worried," said Grajeda when they were a police officer in Long Beach. When he went to Idaho, something made him feel very safe. "That's how it used to be when I was a small child," he added.

An old cop from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, who did not want his name shared because a former prisoner he helped arrest made real threats against him, arrived in 2019. He had $128,00 for retirement plus safe health coverage guaranteed to continue forever.

Does he feel sorry for leaving California, where his retirement money comes from?

He laughed at the question and said, "You forget that fast." "You gave 30 years of hard work and dedication to the city. You feel no guilt whatsoever."

He lived in Southern California his whole life and he used to love it, he said. But he, also saw the state as a bad mix of crime and homelessness along with liberal rules that made police jobs tough.

When he gave back his badge and gun that day, he took a picture of the building for Monterey Park police in his mirror as they left. He sent it to friends still working, wished them good luck and drove up north. He didn't stop for gas until he reached California border, said the person.

He has two adult daughters who live in Southern Idaho, just like him. One person is a real estate worker and the other cuts hair, but they couldn't buy anywhere in California. However, now they own four houses together in Idaho at low prices for them.

"They're doing great," he said happily, like a proud dad. “It’s like a dream.”

His daughter has sold around 20 houses to LASD coworkers, he stated. Many of them are now retired, but some still work and have planned their times so they can travel long distances.

He lives in a planned community called Legacy with big gates, broad roads and its own three-hole golf course. People call it "Little Orange County" and looks like a piece of Irvine placed in the middle grassy plain.

As he stood in the sand on the beach in his backyard, casting his fishing line into a man-made lake, he pointed to the other houses around the water, listing off the departments their owners worked for: Santa Monica PD, LAPD and California Highway Patrol. Nine of the 11 houses you can see were filled with retired cops from California.

He said they are about 90% Republicans. His own clean garage has big, red and blue signs saying "Let's Go Brandon" and "Trump 2024 Take America Back". These banners also read this.

Like many police officers, he said that his disappointment with the government of California comes from feeling like leaders in law enforcement and politicians are no longer supporting them.

Cops not only have to deal with the most dangerous and unstable people in society they face on the streets, he said. They also need to worry about lawyers trying for points from voters who care about justice by "throwing them under a bus" when things go wrong.

It takes a toll. "I've been at protests where people were spitting on me, throwing bottles and rocks. You couldn't do anything then," he said. "That just seemed silly to me."

If people in California are angry that a lot of money for pensions is leaving their state, it's because they voted for leaders who don't help the police. He said this adding "If those politicians were not there I assure you 70 to 80% of us would still be living in California."

It's a feeling that many people who left California feel too. Now it looks like they have fully taken over Eagle. Their favorite person, the ex-fire boss from Santa Clara who was said to be too Californian, won the race by a big margin.