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Board Approves Arts Grants, Argues Over Pension Benefits Increase for Arts Director

Written by Elizabeth Marcellino

The Board of Supervisors approved $4.5 million in funding for 180 nonprofit arts organizations today but wrangled over a pay-grade increase that could improve pension benefits for the director of the Arts Commission that manages the grants.

The grants are provided to a wide range of arts organizations to fund concerts, theater productions, exhibitions, school arts education and other programs.

But the awards were overshadowed by a contentious discussion between board members over changing the pay grade of the woman who leads the commission. County Chief Executive Officer William Fujioka had recommended that Executive Director Laura Zucker's R12 pay grade be increased to R15 over the next three years. That would allow Zucker's full salary—$191,220, according to a spokeswoman for Supervisor Gloria Molina—to be counted for purposes of calculating pension benefits.

Zucker is already paid at the higher level and will not receive a raise, but about $32,000 of her compensation comes from the Ford Theatre Foundation and is not "pensionable" given her current pay grade cap.

Supervisor Gloria Molina accused her colleagues of "pension spiking," an illegal practice of inflating compensation shortly before an employee retires to increase pension benefits.

"It's a violation of the law and we have no legal opinion that says otherwise," Molina said.

Molina argued that Zucker should not have a pay grade two steps ahead of the classification for Los Angeles County Museum of Art Director Michael Govan, who manages about $30 million in county funds, and Natural History Museum Director Jane Pisano, who manages $18 million in county funds. The Arts Commission is responsible for overseeing $9 million, according to Molina.

Govan is paid more than $1.275 million in total compensation and Pisano collects $439,177 in total compensation, according to the museums' respective IRS filings. Those numbers include supplements from outside foundations and may include benefits.

County Counsel John Krattli told Molina that, "This does not constitute pension spiking." He said the fact that Zucker planned to work for the county for "several" more years was one factor in his assessment.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Zucker had been recruited by the city of Los Angeles for a job paying "much more than we were paying," an offer Fujioka pegged at about $225,000. A move to include more of Zucker's pay in pension calculations was made in an effort to keep her on staff.

"She has very broad responsibility ... and has done an outstanding job," Yaroslavsky said of Zucker, adding that for the county to lose her would have been "catastrophic."

Molina said it wasn't the board's place to make the change.

"I know there are folks that love her and would really like to help her out, but that's not what we do," Molina said. "These are taxpayer funds."

Yaroslavsky asked Chief Executive Officer William Fujioka to confirm that these kinds of adjustments are made "many times" a year for various employees.

Fujioka said he couldn't cite the exact number under consideration, but it was less than 10.

Yaroslavsky accused Molina of playing politics because she doesn't care for Zucker.

"To make a scandal out of this is really a stunt," Yaroslavsky said.

It will still be up to the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association to approve pension calculations for Zucker whenever she retires.

The battle between Molina and Yaroslavsky, each of whom will leave office due to term limits at the end of the year, ended in a 3-2 vote approving the increase in pay grade. Supervisor Michael Antonovich joined Molina in her dissent.

—City News Service

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