Gary submits plan to cut retired officials' benefits Legal fight likely, but Bachman expects council's approval

September 20, 1995|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,SUN STAFF

County Executive John G. Gary has formally delivered to lawmakers his plan to save taxpayers $4 million by reducing the retirement benefits of former public officials.

County Council Vice Chairman George F. Bachman said yesterday that he believes his colleagues will approve the measure -- introduced to the council Monday night -- despite the belief that it will embroil taxpayers in an expensive legal fight.

Meanwhile, Deborah G. Turner, chairwoman of the county's Pension Oversight Commission, wondered yesterday at all the fuss.

Mrs. Turner, whose advisory group will review the legislation, said the bill resembles an attempt last year to make across-the-board, retroactive reductions. The commission and the council ultimately decided against that effort.

"We didn't think there was any legal basis for it," said Mrs. Turner, explaining her panel's opposition to the earlier bill. "We didn't see any reason for paying a lot of legal fees to defend something that was probably going to be thrown out in court anyway."

When the citizen panel begins its review next week, Mrs. Turner said, she "would like to hear the administration's legal strategy and the reason why they think [Mr. Gary's plan] is different."

Mrs. Turner, a professional pension consultant, said across-the-board reductions are "too simplistic." In private industry, she said, such benefit reductions are not allowed by federal law. Benefits are seen as part of a contract between employers and their employees, she said.

The oversight panel recommended last year a "multi-tiered, or blended" package of reductions that strip retirees of unexpected windfalls from a 1989 pension-enhancement law while protecting the contractual rights of employees who have accrued benefits since then, Mrs. Turner said. "We felt a uniform, across-the-board rollback had little chance for success," she said.

Mr. Gary's bill would repeal most of the 1989 law. It would lower benefits by 20 percent across the board and raise the retirement age from 50 to 60. Officials say the bill would affect about half of the 95 people in the program, which lawmakers closed to new participants in 1993. The county has five independent pension plans covering 3,000 employees.

The Appointed and Elected Officials plan became a political issue in 1991 after officials discovered a $14 million deficit in the pension fund. Officials say the deficit, which they have since revised down to $6.9 million, was caused by the enhanced benefits and a state law forcing the county to give retirees pension credits for any years they worked in state government.

Last year, the council relied heavily on the oversight commission's recommendations. However, Mrs. Turner said she has no illusions that her panel will carry such weight with those lawmakers elected 10 months ago.

"These guys were elected to deal with this issue," she said.

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