Seventeen members of the county's Appointed and Elected Officials Pension Plan should be stricken from the plan and lose the lucrative benefits that go along with it, the county attorney said yesterday.
Judson P. Garrett Jr. said in a 45-page opinion that the county workers and retired workers are not "appointed officials," as defined by state law and were never legally entitled to receive benefits under the plan, which is more generous than the county's general Employees Retirement Plan.
The Appointed and Elected Officials Pension Plan was created Aug. 28, 1973, but in 1989, the county council increased the benefits and reduced the retirement age to 50.
Since then, county officials have learned that the pension plan, which has 95 members, is underfunded by as much as $14 million. The plan was closed to new membership last year.
Removing the 17 members could trim some of that deficit, but county officials yesterday said they did not know how much could be saved.
Mr. Garrett said the 17 members were not elected, nor do they meet legal definition of "appointed official" because they do not fill jobs in which they exercise any authority delegated to the county by the state.
As an example, he said, a worker who has discretionary power to perform certain functions, such as a county finance officer or other department head, may exercise authorities granted by the state.
But a deputy department head, who acts only at the direction of a supervisor, is not an "appointed official," he said.
Mr. Garrett said that of the 17 plan members, seven are retired and are drawing benefits under the plan, four are no longer with the county but are waiting to reach retirement age to collect benefits, and six remain with the county.
The 17 members include assistants to the county executive, confidential secretaries to various administrators, legislative counsel to the county counsel, administrative assistant to the auditor, the public information officer, legislative liaison officer, assistant administrative officer to the county council, director of programming and information services officer.
Mr. Garrett said that a county ordinance is not necessary to strike the 17 workers and former workers from the pension system and that the county could take legal action to recoup payments made to the seven retirees who were not entitled to them.
But he said he anticipates a suit to block either step from being taken.
Mr. Garrett said a suit could be averted if the County Council enacts legislation to specifically add the 17 people to the plan.
But County Council Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks said he doesn't anticipate the approval of such legislation, given concerns among the seven-member council about the costs of the county pension system.
"I'd be against it, and I couldn't see it passing, given the history of the problems we've had in this area," Mr. Middlebrooks said.