Pension issue flares up in executive campaign

August 28, 1994|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Sun Staff Writer

County executive candidate Theodore J. Sophocleus came under direct fire Friday from an opponent for the government pensions that he and his wife receive.

Democratic rival H. Erle Schafer criticized the eight years that Mr. Sophocleus spent on the County Council as "lackluster" and self-serving. He cited then-Councilman Sophocleus' support in 1989 for changes to the retirement package offered to elected and appointed officials as his opponent's major accomplishment.

Mr. Sophocleus said he had expected the challenge but complained that Mr. Schafer grossly overstated the retirement benefits that he and his wife, Alice, receive. He said Mr. Schafer overlooked his accomplishments in his North County district, including improved sewerage, the opening of a Brooklyn Park health center and the construction of recreational ball fields.

Mr. Schafer "knows he can't win and he's trying to tear me down," said Mr. Sophocleus from his job at a Baltimore pharmacy Friday. "That's OK, as long as he has the facts straight."

Then-County Executive O. James Lighthizer requested the pension changes -- which allowed participants to retire at 50 rather than 60 and increased their benefits -- to prevent Cabinet officials from abandoning a lame-duck administration before the term's end.

On the advice of a citizen-based, pension oversight committee, the seven-member council approved the plan unanimously.

Mr. and Mrs. Sophocleus began drawing monthly retirement checks totaling about $930 when he left the council in 1990. That comes to about $11,200 annually. Mr. Sophocleus said he pays $100 every month for their medical benefits.

The pensions were based on Mr. Sophocleus' council salary of $21,000 and the $36,000 Mrs. Sophocleus earned as his aide.

In a news release Friday, Mr. Schafer charged that the two receive $20,000 annually in retirement benefits, plus health insurance. Mr. Schafer could not be reached for comment about his statement.

"That's typical Erle," said Mr. Sophocleus, 55, the Democratic nominee for county executive in 1990. "He runs at the mouth and shoots from the hip."

In his statement, Mr. Schafer also criticized Mr. Sophocleus for taking benefits after serving only eight years on the county payroll.

"How long would a teacher, policeman or woman, or other county government worker have to work to enjoy a similar amount?" asked Mr. Schafer, a former county councilman, state senator and clerk of the Circuit Court.

The retirement program had been expected to become an issue after auditors this year found that it was underfinanced by more than $14 million. It has been closed to new enrollees.

A public opinion poll conducted for William Brill, an Annapolis Democrat who dropped out of the executive race in July, found that 60 percent of voters were familiar with the pension issue. Nearly 84 percent of the poll's respondents said they would be "less inclined" to vote for a candidate who had voted to enhance the retirement benefits for himself and his wife.

Larry Walker, another Democratic executive candidate and a police corporal, has criticized the pension plan but avoided directly commenting on Mr. Sophocleus.

Robert Agee, an aide in the previous administration who is also running in the Democratic primary for county executive, had been part of the pension plan but was one of 17 people recently disqualified by the county attorney. Mr. Agee, 46, has received no benefits.

Mr. Schafer, 56, has said that he is in a retirement program for state elected officials, but does not draw benefits.

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