Reining in Anne Arundel Pensions

September 15, 1993

Anne Arundel Executive Robert R. Neall is having a tough time drafting a bill to fix the county's ludicrously generous pension fund for elected and appointed officials. That's because he's treading on dangerous legal ground, trying to repeal benefits for people who have earned them.

The Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association is after the same thing. AATA has filed suit to overturn the 1989 law which lowered the retirement age for those officials to 50 with only 16 years of service.

Amazingly, no one objected to these changes when they were proposed. In the go-go '80s, people more readily accepted the rationale that sweet pension deals were necessary to attract top-notch administrators.

jTC Now it's a different story. An audit revealing that the appointed and elected officials' plan is only half-funded has left recession-weary voters repelled at the thought of government bigwigs making off like bandits. Under pressure from them, elected leaders have been busy correcting their own mistakes. They've stiffened retirement requirements, lowered benefits and proposed raising an employee's cost of transferring years of service in other governments to Anne Arundel's pension system -- a critical change, because so many state employees end up working for Anne Arundel County.

These modifications will end the gravy train. But they will not prevent officials vested under the 1989 plan from collecting. This galls many, including Mr. Neall.

Skeptics doubt he is serious about repealing his own benefits, but saving money by going after constitutionally protected pensions is just the kind of trick that would give him a thrill.

He should back off, though. Popular as a rollback may be, those vested under the 1989 law are constitutionally entitled to those benefits. And neither the county nor AATA are likely to meet the standard set in a 1984 case in which courts ruled Maryland could modify teachers' pensions because it faced financial ruin otherwise. The sums of money involved here simply are not that great.

If, starting now, non-vested employees (and those include Mr. Neall's appointees) are subject to stricter pension laws, the fund soon will be out of trouble and taxpayers no longer paying through the nose.

Mr. Neall should content himself with these significant reforms and stay away from a battle the county is almost sure to lose.

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