Bill would aid three laid-off workers

December 17, 1993|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

When they were laid off in February, three veteran Baltimore County workers who were only months away from qualifying for county pensions suddenly found themselves without a job or retirement income.

Now County Executive Roger B. Hayden is opposing a bill, sponsored by his chief Republican ally on the County Council, that would bend the retirement rules enough to give the three workers a chance to buy their pensions. The bill could cost the county $235,000.

The dispute, which came to light at the council's work session Tuesday, is a tug of war between the urge for compassion espoused by Douglas B. Riley, R-4th, and the Hayden administration's desire not to set a precedent.

It is also the kind of pre-holiday drama guaranteed to further damage Mr. Hayden's political stock among county employees less than a year before the 1994 elections.

Mr. Riley introduced the bill mainly to aid a former county highway supervisor who happens to be a constituent. He argued that since the county had never laid people off before, it was unfair to deny a pension to good workers who were so close to achieving that reward and who are now facing financial hardship.

"We're talking about what is fair," he said. "I'm trying to give them a little break."

County Administrative Officer Merreen E. Kelly, who represented Mr. Hayden at the meeting, said the bill would set a precedent that could complicate matters in the future. If an exception is made in this case, he asked, who is to deny the next exception, or the next?

"What if two years from now we lay off?" Mr. Kelly asked.

Many people who lost their jobs this year qualified for special county pensions through the three to nine weeks of severance pay the county paid and unused vacation time, he said.

Tuesday's debate intensified after Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, D-5th, a former county police officer, called the administration's opposition "unconscionable." Mr. Kelly fired back, "I resent being called unconscionable."

Mr. Kelly also said his position was not based on the individuals involved but on management principles. Mr. Hayden declined to comment, saying Mr. Kelly represented his views.

The fact that the layoffs were unprecedented complicates the picture. County workers usually qualify for pensions after 30 years of service or after they reach age 60. But the county code provides a more lenient "discontinued service benefit" for people removed from their jobs through no fault of their own. Under that benefit, county employees can get a pension after working for 25 years, or for 20 years if they are 50 or older.

Two of the three workers who would be affected by Mr. Riley's bill worked for the county for more than 24 years and are in their mid-40s.

The third, a nurse, is 54 and had more than 19 years of service. She got a county nursing job this week, however, making her status under Mr. Riley's bill unclear, said James Gibson, the county finance director. It is possible that Mr. Riley's bill won't help her, meaning she might have to work until she is 60 to get her pension. In effect, her new employment could cost her $60,000 in pension benefits.

"One hundred percent of salary is worth more than 34 percent" pension, Mr. Gibson said of the woman's situation. He also said her situation had not been researched and cited the potential confusion as another reason not to "muck around" with county pension laws.

The people the bill is intended to help could get their pensions by paying their remaining share of payroll contributions before Feb. 11, 1994. That date is the one-year anniversary of Mr. Hayden's announcement that he was eliminating 566 county jobs, of which 392 were filled positions. Though some employees used seniority to bump down to jobs that paid less, about 290 people actually lost their jobs.

Mr. Riley needs five votes to pass his bill, which will be voted on Monday night.

The outcome isn't certain. Because it is classified as an "emergency" bill, it would take effect immediately instead of after the usual 45 days.

Emergency status is needed to make sure the workers have the legal opportunity to buy their pensions before Feb. 11. Five votes are needed to overcome a veto.

If the bill is passed, finance officials said, the three people would have to pay about $1,000 each, the salary contribution they would have made if they had remained on the county payroll for an additional seven to nine months.

They then could draw their pensions, which would range from about $10,000 to $14,000 a year, depending on their salaries and length of service.

The total cost to the county for all three people would be $235,000. Excluding the county nurse would reduce the cost to about $140,000, Mr. Riley said.

Thomas E. Norris, 44, a former public works employee and one of the three people who would be affected, was surprised and happy to hear about the bill. He said no county official had told him about it. The other two people affected refused to comment.

Mr. Norris said he was "mortified" when he learned he had lost his job after more than 24 years of service. He found a similar job in private industry in May but is making about $4,000 a year less and has fewer benefits, he said. The father of three children, ages 13, 17 and 21, said the pension would be welcome.

"We were down to being broke," he said.

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