Pensions, principles and practicality How much should taxpayers spend to stop hefty pensions?

October 24, 1995

THE ANNE ARUNDEL County Council appears ready to approve County Executive John G. Gary's legislation to roll back pension benefits for a few dozen retired high-ranking officials who walked away with a package the rest of us can only dream about. How and why a 1989 law increasing their benefits by up to 25 percent and lowering their retirement age to 50 came into being remains unclear. That has become less important, however, than the public's perception of how and why it came into being. After being filtered through the eyes of the media and members of a new conservative regime wishing to denigrate their 1980s predecessors, the pension law is now seen as a deliberate, unscrupulous "power grab" by the O. James Lighthizer administration. Repealing it has become a "moral obligation," as one Gary aide put it, a matter of principle worth fighting for in court, where everyone agrees it is headed.

These are not just empty platitudes. Whether the law was the work of greedy politicos who conspired to fatten their purses at taxpayer expense or merely the product of an era where big government spending was de rigueur, it was ridiculous and wrong.

The question council members must answer, however, is how many tax dollars it is reasonable to spend avenging the misuse of tax dollars. No one seems to have any idea how much a court challenge by pensioners could end up costing. The prevailing sentiment is that the principle is sacred enough to justify any expense. That sounds appealing. Still, the council must ask at what point the county cuts off its nose to spite its face. It's popular to say now that money is less important than getting back at people who betrayed the public trust. But what if the legal bill starts creeping beyond the $4 million the rollback is expected to save? What if the county spends millions in court and loses? If that happens, those who want new roofs for their schools and books for their libraries will be outraged that the county threw good money after bad.

Council members need some idea of how much a legal challenge would cost, as well as whether the county stands as good a chance of winning as Mr. Gary believes, before they vote to stop these pensions. This is a practical matter -- as well as one of principle.

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