Montgomery County may be the state's most affluent jurisdiction, but its firefighters look longingly at the benefits enjoyed by their counterparts next door in Prince George's County.
Thanks to contracts enacted under then-County Executive Parris Glendening, members of the Prince George's department have some of the state's highest salaries, pay next to nothing toward their retirement and leave with the most generous pension benefits for firefighters in Maryland.
On top of that, the Prince George's firefighters' union, like all of the county's unions, won a no-layoff, no-furlough clause in its current contract -- a provision unheard of elsewhere in the state.
"As far as the firefighters in Montgomery County are concerned, the Prince George's firefighters have the Cadillac contract in the United States," said Landon Pippin, president of the Montgomery firefighters union. "They are so far ahead of us in wages and benefits and so forth that it's just not funny."
The firefighters are not alone. During Mr. Glendening's 12 years as executive, all county workers fared well. Even as the county battled recession in the early 1990s, employees picked up new pension and retirement benefits in lieu of pay raises -- though county salaries remain among the highest in the state.
But such benefits have contributed to the county's budget deficit, now estimated to reach $130 million by this summer.
And the subject of Prince George's employee benefits is bound to dominate the confirmation hearings scheduled this month for two former county officials Governor Glendening has nominated to his state Cabinet.
Down the road, legislators will surely look at Mr. Glendening's track record with employees when he fulfills a campaign promise and pushes for collective bargaining for state employees next year.
Mr. Glendening is proud of the generous benefits, most of which were approved by the County Council, said Tim Ayers, his spokesman in Upper Marlboro and Annapolis.
"When times were good, our employees did very well," Mr. Ayers said. "When times were bad, we went back to them and said you have to give up some stuff and they did."
Even so, Prince George's police and firefighters enjoy the best pensions in the state, according to union officials.
Firefighters, for example, pay just 1 percent of their salary toward their pensions and can retire after 20 years at 60 percent of their salary.
In contrast, their counterparts in Baltimore and Baltimore County pay at least 6 percent of salary for a smaller benefit. They can retire at 50 percent of salary after 20 years in Baltimore and 25 years in Baltimore County.
Montgomery County's firefighters pay from 3.5 percent to 7.5 percent. They can retire after 25 years at 50 percent of pay.
Prince George's police, meanwhile, saw their required pension contribution drop from 5 percent to 4 percent last year. And in the past two years, the maximum retirement benefit for police and firefighters rose to an extraordinary 85 percent of salary after 30 years -- a provision unmatched in Maryland.
The pension changes in Mr. Glendening's last four-year term resulted in substantial growth in the "unfunded liability" of the police and fire pension funds -- the amount that county taxpayers will have to pay down the road.
Like workers in other jurisdictions, Prince George's employees have had modest or no pay raises the past four years. But Mr. Glendening's administration did manage to add sweeteners in other areas.
A key concession was Mr. Glendening's contractual promise to each of the county's unions not to lay off or furlough any employees. The unusual pledge could make it more difficult for the new county executive, Wayne K. Curry, to balance the budget.
"I think that's an extraordinary provision that has few if any parallels in the country in either the private or public sector," said newly elected council member Walter H. Maloney.
Mr. Ayers, the Glendening spokesman, said the county agreed to the no-layoff clause in exchange for the unions forgoing pay raises during the recession. The no-layoff provision expires at the end of June, he said, allowing Mr. Curry to use layoffs then if necessary.
Mr. Glendening also created the controversial supplemental pension program -- designed to augment benefits for county employees enrolled in the state's pension plan -- during his last term. Retirement benefits for the supplemental plan were increased twice, and it now costs the county about 4 percent of payroll for the 3,100 participating employees.
It was through a provision of this plan that Mr. Glendening and three top aides qualified for tens of thousands of dollars in early pension benefits disclosed in news reports last month. Amid criticism in both Annapolis and Upper Marlboro, Mr. Glendening and the aides said they would forfeit those payments until they leave state service or reach the usual retirement age of 55.
Unused sick leave