Board cites delay, lets man 'buy back' pension time

February 25, 1993|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer

A county employee can claim four years of service to Baltimore City in the 1950s as part of his current retirement package with Anne Arundel County, even though he missed a state-mandated deadline for filing the request, an appeals board has ruled.

Tuesday night's decision -- which will not become final until a written opinion is issued in 30 to 60 days -- should not have far-reaching impact because the employee's circumstances were special, a county official said yesterday.

George Johnson, who worked 22 years for the Department of Recreation and Parks after four years with the city, made inquiries to the county and city. His questions were not answered until after the deadline, however.

The Board of Appeals rejected a similar request from a county police lieutenant, saying the officer knew about the deadline but did not act because he didn't think at first the 1 1/2 -years he worked for the state would matter that much.

Board members added, however, that the county was morally wrong for failing to notify employees of the law, passed in 1990, that allowed workers to "buy back" pensions as long as they filed the request by June 30, 1991.

"I think there was an injustice," board member Barbara M. Hale said, "but all the board's hands are tied in the state legislature."

Donald Tynes, director of personnel for the county, said yesterday that the law caught his office by surprise. Though it was passed in 1990, he said, his office first learned it might apply to Anne Arundel just months before the June 30 deadline.

To "buy back" their time, employees had to pay the money they would have contributed to their county pension plan while they worked for another governmental agency.

For example, an employee who worked three years for Baltimore and 30 years for the county could retire and receive benefits for 33 years of service, as long as he paid for the three years of pension contributions in a lump sum.

Mr. Tynes said yesterday that 125 workers took advantage of the law. The cases decided Tuesday were the first the Board of Appeals has heard on this issue and the secretary said no others are pending.

Planning to retire in August 1992, Mr. Johnson inquired about the bill at the personnel office before June 30. He said he did not receive a response until after the deadline had passed, mainly because it took Baltimore City 18 months to confirm he actually had worked there.

A county attorney had urged the personnel office to reject Mr. Johnson's claim, saying she feared it would set a bad precedent and expose the county "to significant liability." But the appeals board said Mr. Johnson made a valid request -- even if it was not in writing -- to the county before the deadline, and therefore was entitled to his additional benefits.

"I believe that Mr. Johnson did make an effort," board member John W. Boring said. "That initial interest entitles him to buy back his time."

In the second case, the board denied the claim of Lt. William Tankersley, saying he knew about the deadline but decided not to file a request.

Lieutenant Tankersley said he found out about the bill from office gossip just two weeks before the deadline. He said he chose not to file a claim for the 1 1/2 years he worked at the State Police barracks in Annapolis in 1967 because he felt it wouldn't matter much in his overall retirement benefits.

But that changed last year when the county offered early retirement plans to police officers with 20 or more years of employment. It was then that the 25-year veteran filed for his back years, claiming the county intentionally "hid" the law from employees. His request was denied.

"The county did its best to suppress the benefits of this bill to its employees, obviously because of the financial burden it created," he wrote to the appeals board.

The board distinguished Mr. Johnson's case from that of Lieutenant Tankersley, who works in the Eastern District.

"Mr. Johnson made an effort to purchase his back time," said member David M. Schafer. "Lieutenant Tankersley did not."

The lieutenant said yesterday that he knew of many other officers in similar situations and he would consider filing a class-action lawsuit against the county.

"The intent of the bill was to open a door and give employees a one-year grace period," he said in an interview. "How can I do it if I'm not told about it? The board basically said I had two weeks to make a decision."

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