Gary Shows Critics He's a Real Cutter

COMMENT

September 10, 1995|By ELISE ARMACOST

The disciples of fiscal conservatism have said some not-so-nice things about Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary these past months. They've written him off as a pseudo-penny-pincher, they've scorned his ideas for new projects and new bureaucrats as an unwelcome departure from the predecessor he promised to emulate.

"We knew Bob Neall," they've said, "and let us tell you, he's no Bob Neall." Now John Gary's critics are eating crow.

He's proposing something that even Mr. Neall, the patron saint of fiscal conservatives, wouldn't do: roll back a now-closed 1989 pension plan that ensured cushy benefits for 44 high-ranking elected and appointed officials -- including those who have already retired.

Adrian Teel, former County Executive O. James Lighthizer's chief aide, would stop getting his $72,000 annual pension until he turns 60 -- and then he won't get as much. Mr. Neall's press secretary, Louise Hayman, scheduled to collect more than $25,000 annually three years from now, wouldn't get anything until 2008 if the County Council goes along with Mr. Gary, as it certainly will. The council is more conservative than he is.

The county almost certainly will be sued for breach of contract. Mr. Gary says he's prepared for that, and anyway, he doesn't care.

"To those who were the architects of this thing, I wish there was more I could do to them," he said at a press conference Wednesday. "I can't tell you what I would like to do to them."

And that's not all. He wants to end the 35-hour work week, still enjoyed by one-third of non-public safety employees. He wants to get rid of the five different pension plans now in place and fold all new hires -- including police and firefighters -- into one system. That very likely involves elimination of a sacred perk for a hallowed group of workers: the 20-year-and-out retirement plan now offered to police officers.

The cost of retirement benefits to taxpayers is growing at twice the rate of county spending, Mr. Gary points out. "If left unchecked," he said, "all present pension plans could be in jeopardy."

A year ago, Mr. Gary promised pension reform would be a key component of his administration. Today, no one can say he hasn't delivered. These are significant changes he's proposing. They ought to win him major points with taxpayer groups and citizens who elected him because they thought he'd be more careful with their money than his opponent -- who voted for and benefits by the 1989 pension law.

Mr. Gary promised to manage finances responsibly, and making sure pension plans are solvent and fair to both employees and taxpayers is a part of that. As one long-time council employee noted after the press conference, generally speaking, "He's doing the right thing."

And with the exception of asking police to give up 20-years-and-out -- a proposal that will never go over -- he's doing what the public wants. The former officials who stand to have their pensions delayed and reduced will not find many defenders. Are private-sector workers, many who are looking at pensions they won't be able to live on, likely to rise up in protest because a few dozen former government honchos won't be able to retire at 50 with a nice pension check?

Is the County Council going to waste this chance to wipe out all vestiges of this gravy train pension plan? As Councilman William Mulford said, "I would rather be sued by someone who's unjustly receiving benefits than by taxpayers over a system that's indefensible."

Unfortunately, the situation is not as cut-and-dried as Mr. Mulford makes it sound. Not everyone in that pension plan conspired to fatten his purse at taxpayer expense. Some people came to work here after the plan was in place, partly because the pension package was attractive. They made important life decisions based on a benefit they thought was guaranteed.

The county has a sound legal argument that no contract was broken with most employees in the plan, because most were already working for the government when the 1989 law was passed. The pension they stand to lose is not the pension they were promised when they accepted a job. But that argument doesn't work for employees who came here since 1989. Mr. Gary said as much, noting he has "little pangs of pain" when he thinks about the people "who are going to be impacted by this through no fault of theirs."

The 1989 pension plan was closed to new hires some time ago, and its deficit of $14 million has been cut about in half. Rolling back the pension benefits would shave another $3 million off that debt. But the court battle that is certain to ensue will drag on for years and cost taxpayers at least that much -- and there's no guarantee the county will win, despite a 1993 opinion from Attorney General J. Joseph Curran supporting Mr. Gary's position.

Is it worth it? From a money standpoint, the answer probably is no. But this pension problem has never been about money alone. It's about the principle that powerful government officials -- who are supposed to serve the public -- shouldn't be enriching themselves at taxpayer expense. People resent such a misuse of power, and probably will support Mr. Gary's efforts to go after these benefits even if it hurts a few blameless people, even if it costs taxpayers in the long run.

They wanted a fiscal conservative in the Arundel Center. At last, it looks like that's what they've got.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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