Council to begin debating pensions 41-page proposal would cut benefits, delay retirements

June 16, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

The fight between the Gary administration and Anne Arundel employees over the future of the county's pay and pension system is about to change from snappy sound bites to a bureaucratic drone requiring a team of lawyers to decipher it.

Tomorrow night, the County Council begins debating legislation that would fundamentally recast the county's $750 million pension system. Longtime officials say the much-anticipated bill, 41 pages in language as obscure as Middle English, is the most complex legislation in county history.

It is also among the most important -- to County Executive John G. Gary and to 3,500 Anne Arundel employees -- that will appear on this year's County Council agenda.

"I don't see anything more significant than this coming along," said Councilman James E. DeGrange, a Glen Burnie Democrat.

The debate is an echo of the bitter conversation earlier this spring -- in picket lines, on the radio and in packed council chambers. But the slogans have changed from ones easily encapsulated on signs and in minute-long commercials to complicated legislative language lawyers make their livings translating.

The Gary administration, which usually handles its legal work in-house, hired the Baltimore firm Piper & Marbury to draft the bill. In response, the council is considering the highly unusual LTC step of hiring its own outside lawyers to review the legislation. Last week, council members spent three hours covering 14 of the bill's 41 pages.

"It's not a question of not trusting the administration, which many would like to think," said Councilman William C. Mulford, an Annapolis Republican. "It's a matter of getting an independent analysis. Very few of us have experience in this matter."

DeGrange said, "I think it might run deeper, and that's why I want a complete explanation before it goes any further."

In the past two months, the council has handed Gary two high-profile victories in his push to cut personnel costs, which account for 75 percent of Anne Arundel's annual spending. First, council members approved legislation that eliminates county employees' guaranteed raises in favor of merit pay, and then, last month, the council sided with the administration against public safety unions to settle a labor impasse.

As a result, a question is swirling around the Arundel Center: How independent is the panel from a Republican administration that seems to have its hands on all the levers of power?

"I can't say there's not going to be lots of administration interference," said Dennis P. Howell, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 70. "If they really want to have an independent understanding of this bill, they need an outside legal and fiscal opinion."

Council members also will be challenged to show independence from their own interests, since they will be voting on their own retirement plans.

Council Chairwoman Diane R. Evans, an Arnold Republican, will lose an estimated $100,000 in pension benefits if the administration's bill passes in its current form. George F. Bachman, a Linthicum Democrat, could lose even more.

"This is a way for me to put my name on the line and say, 'This needs to be done,' " said Evans, who was a support officer for the county's domestic relations department for 10 years before taking her council seat in 1990. "I'll be putting my money where my mouth is."

The pension bill arrives two weeks after a federal judge handed the Gary administration a rare setback, striking down 1995 pension reform legislation as unconstitutional for paring retirement benefits approved six years earlier.

Those benefits, considered some of the most lavish in the state, apply to 93 of Anne Arundel's highest-paid officials, who were part of the "appointed and elected officials" pension plan. County lawyers are considering whether to contest the ruling in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Determined to win this round, the administration has characterized the current bill as the only way to preserve the county's retirement system, which covers 3,500 active employees and 1,100 retired county workers.

'It's going to happen'

By 2004, the number of retirees will double and drive up the percentage of the county's payroll devoted to pension benefits, county officials say.

"When you look down the road, you see that old train wreck," County Attorney Phillip F. Scheibe told the council during a work session last week. "It's not going to happen today. It's not going to happen during your tenure. But it's going to happen unless something is done."

Gary, who pinned his political star to pension reform in 1994, wants to squeeze $2.5 million a year in savings from what is now a highly complex retirement system comprising five plans and $750 million in assets.

Halving benefits

The measure, which does not affect current retirees, would bring each plan under an appointed board of trustees. The controversial plan for "appointed and elected officials" would be merged into the general employees' plan.

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