A week after County Executive Robert R. Neall unveiled an early-retirement incentive package, County Council members, union representatives and taxpayer groups are praising the plan's intent but worrying about its effect.
The package is designed to save up to $3 million by sweetening pension benefits for the 400 county workers eligible to retire, in the hope of encouraging 100 retirements.
"Anything that's intended to cut the size of the county work force, I'm in favor of, " said Robert D. Schaeffer, president of the AnneArundel County Taxpayers Association.
"It's not a mandatory retirement, so right now I don't see any problems with it," said Capt. Frank Stokes, president of the Anne Arundel County Professional Firefighters Union, Local 1563.
But council members and other officials also fear that the package could lead to a talent drain in county government and that it may cripple the delivery of services.
"We have alot of good people in county government and I'm a little concerned that we could lose a lot of them with this," said Councilwoman Diane Evans.
"I think a lot of people are going to take advantage of it,"said Jim Bestpitch, vice president of Local 582 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 900truck drivers, survey crews, maintenance personnel and other blue-collar workers.
Bestpitch said that with employees not getting a raise last year, being forced to give back 3 percent of their pay this year and anticipating little or no raise next year, "morale is at an all-time low.
"I can't help but feel that a lot of people are goingto be thinking this is a good time to just get out completely," Bestpitch said.
Stokes said that he has yet to hear specifics of the plan, but that a package explaining its details has been mailed to him.
The package is slated to be discussed at the firefighters union meeting Tuesday, he said.
"I think anyone should look at it, anyone who might benefit from it," he said.
The plan, which must still be approved by the council, calls for increasing the pension package for anyone eligible for retirement as of July 1 by one additional month of benefit credit for each year of service.
This means an employee with 30 years of service who is age 60 and earning $45,000 would be eligible for an annual pension of $29,250, rather than the current$27,000.
That same worker also would be able to take the bonus money as a one-time payment of $24,750, or as an annuity of $13,500 fortwo years until reaching age 62.
Bennett H. Shaver, the former state pension system chief retained by Neall to review the county's pension system who came up with the package, said all workers at least 50 years old and with 20 years of service are eligible. So are firefighters and police officers with 20 years of service regardless of age,he said.
Shaver said that like the county's existing pension planitself, the retirement incentive is weighted to give the most benefits to employees with the most service.
That means the package is designed to encourage more retirement among the 60-year-old workers with 30 years service than among the 50-year-olds with 20 years service.
There is a 90-day window, so workers who do not sign up by Aug. 31 will no longer be eligible for the added benefit.
Departments may rehire key employees on a contractual basis, but only at two-thirds their former salary, only for up to two years and with no fringe benefits.
Shaver said the plan is intended to get about 100 workers to retire, which will mean trimming 50 of those 100 jobs from the payroll and saving between $2 million and $3 million.
Council membersthis week praised Neall for coming up with the plan.
Councilman Edward Middlebrooks added that he is not convinced that there will be as much cost savings as projected by Neall if too many workers in critical areas leave and the county has to hire some back at two-thirds their salary.
"I would question the need for doing that. If peopleleave, every effort should be made to replace them internally," he said.
The proposal is scheduled to be introduced to the council at its April 20 session.
Neall also is scheduled to brief unions representing the county's 4,000 government workers that day on the plans details.
A council public hearing will be held May 4 and, if approved by council, the package would take effect so that workers could begin signing up by June 1.