The retiree cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) is governed by Section 31870 of the County Employees ' Retirement Law of 1937 (1937 Act). Under that section, the SCERS Board must determine the appropriate COLA for SCERS retirement benefits and implement that COLA on April 1st each year. Pursuant to the law, the COLA is based on the annual change in the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index (CPI) for All Urban Consumers for the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose area. The law requires that this change be rounded to the nearest one-half percent.
SCERS performs the calculation of the cost-of-living increase. In making this calculation, SCERS compares the average annual CPI for the calendar year just ended with the average annual CPI for the preceding calendar year, and not the end-of-year CPI for the two years. Thus, to determine the COLA effective April 1, 2017, SCERS compared the average annual CPI for 2015 and 2016, not the December 2015 CPI compared to the December 2016 CPI. The average annual CPI is often slightly different than the year-end CPI, but over time the two measures produce virtually identical results.
Determination of the COLA is not based on simple subtraction of the average annual CPI for 2015 from the average annual CPI for 2016. Instead, the COLA is based on the ratio of the two average annual CPIs. This is done because the actual CPI number is a measure of how much consumer prices have changed relative to a designated 'base period' (the current base period is 1982-1984). In order to measure the amount of change from year to year, as opposed to the amount of change from the base period, SCERS must use the ratio of the two average annual CPI numbers. Put another way, via the ratio, 2015 becomes the base year for measuring the increase in the cost-of-living in 2016.
The U.S. Department of Labor statistics on cost-of-living for the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose area can be found here. The chart on that page shows that the average annual CPI for 2016 was 266.344 and the average annual CPI for 2015 was 258.572 . The ratio of these two annual average CPIs shows an increase of 3.01% from 2015 to 2016. This results in a base COLA of 3.0% when rounded to the nearest one-half percent, as required by the law. The Retirement Board approved the cost-of-living increases at its meeting on Wednesday, February 15, 2017 (see COLA by plan and tier).
The actual COLA that a person receives is dependent upon the individual's tier and date of retirement, and includes consideration of whether the individual has any accumulated carry-over in his/her 'COLA Bank.' A person accumulates a balance in his/her COLA Bank if the actual cost-of-living increase for a year is greater than the maximum annual COLA authorized for the person's tier by the 1937 Act. For example, the maximum annual COLA for a Tier 3 Miscellaneous member is 2%. If the actual cost-of-living increase for the year was 3%, the Tier 3 member would get a 2% COLA and accumulate 1% in his/her COLA Bank. The balance in the COLA Bank would then be applied the next time the actual cost-of-living increase for the year was less than the annual maximum COLA. Accordingly, if the actual cost-of-living increase the next year was 1%, SCERS would add the 1% balance in the COLA Bank to the 1% COLA for the year, resulting in a total COLA of 2%. The balance in the COLA Bank would be reduced to zero.
Because of accumulated balances in their COLA Banks, Tier 1 members (both Miscellaneous and Safety) who retired on March 31, 1978 or earlier will receive a COLA of 4% effective April 1, 2017. Tier 1 members who retired on or after April 1, 1978 will receive a 3.0% COLA. All Miscellaneous Tier 3, 4, and 5 members and Safety Tier 2, 3, and 4 members will receive a 2% COLA. The COLA for 2017 will be reflected in direct deposits and checks issued on April 30, 2017.
The determination of the retirement benefit COLA is separate and apart from the determination of any salary cost-of-living increase for active employees. The retirement benefit COLA is determined by the SCERS Board, while a salary adjustment for active employees is determined by the Board of Supervisors. In addition, determination of the salary adjustment for active employees is not controlled by the 1937 Act and thus can be based on different cost-of-living benchmarks, which can result in a larger salary adjustment than the retirement benefit COLA.