Longtime city workers' buzzword is 'goodbye' Baltimore employees rush to take lucrative early retirement offer

July 03, 1996|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

At municipal offices throughout Baltimore, the long goodbyes have already begun.

As of the end of last week, 620 city workers had signed up for an early retirement program -- and the first and most lucrative registration period still has four weeks to run.

Some workers have cleaned out their desks; others have announced their plans but will not leave until this month.

A partial body count so far includes: public works, 235; finance, 42; recreation and parks, 30; and housing, 27.

Among those departing are several of Baltimore's highest-ranking bureaucrats, including the chiefs of the city's payroll and purchasing departments -- as well as the administrator of the pension system overseeing the retirement plan.

Also leaving: Henry John "Jack" Reed III, a housing department official who came under fire earlier this year after revelations that he owned substandard rental properties; and a handful of colleagues in the embattled inspection division.

"Every time I was around, people were saying goodbye," said Gilbert V. Rubin, who retired last week after 49 years as executive director of the city's zoning board. "I thought they were saying goodbye to me. It turned out they were leaving, too."

Ella H. Pierce, the head of the city's purchasing department, who will retire in three weeks after 30 years of service, spent Friday saying "so long" to colleagues in a first round of farewell functions.

"There were breakfasts, lunches and dinners," she said. "We were moving from one to the other. It was kind of a sweet-sad day."

Funded by a surplus in the city's pension system, the program is designed to cut the city's 25,000-person work force without resorting to widespread layoffs.

The plan is directed at some 2,000 longtime employees on the cusp of retirement, and officials estimate that as many as 1,000 could eventually sign up; normally, only 500 employees retire in an entire year.

It makes leaving more attractive by crediting workers with additional service, including a 5 percent payment bonus to those who opt to sever their employment by July 31.

Under the program, a worker making $25,000 with 20 years' service would get $9,246 a year, an increase of some $1,700 over regular retirement benefits; one making $50,000 with 30 years' service would get $31,313 a year, an increase of about $6,000. Those figures do not include lump-sum payments for unused leave.

Originally, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wanted to phase in the program -- which covers all categories of workers except police officers, firefighters and teachers, who have separate retirement systems -- over five years as a way of reducing the number of city employees and getting long-term budget savings.

But at the suggestion of City Council leaders, who wanted to balance this year's budget without substantial tax increases, the program was compressed into six months, with a key sweetener available through the end of this month.

Last week, Schmoke referred to the exodus of employees in key positions as a "brain drain" and said he was watching the situation "very closely."

"I talked to our agency heads and said, 'Don't despair about this. This is a real opportunity for us to change the way we're delivering services,' " the mayor said.

Most seem to be taking his words to heart.

City planning director Charles Graves is losing 15 members of his 65-person department to a combination of early retirements and layoffs. They include the deputy director, Victor L. Bonaparte, who has been with the city 24 years, and the head of the capital improvement program, Israel Patoka, who has been there 17 years.

But Graves noted that eight community planners previously assigned to the housing department are moving over to his agency.

"I don't foresee that any planning activities will stop or decrease," he said.

For their part, some council members say they want to make sure that the vacancies are kept open so that taxpayers receive the benefits of staff reductions.

"What we need to do is control the appetite of managers to immediately fill all the slots or to take the savings to create new slots," said 3rd District Councilman Martin O'Malley, a key architect of the accelerated early retirement plan.

A few of those choosing to leave city government are closed-mouthed about their choice.

Reed, for example, a 28-year city employee who was transferred from his job as a superintendent of housing inspections to a rat eradication program after The Sun revealed in January that he owned substandard rental properties, declined to discuss his decision.

"I'm not going to talk to you," Reed said.

A former colleague of Reed's in the inspection division, Patrick McHugh, whose send-off Friday after 24 years in city government was capped by a "nice little office party," said increased scrutiny of housing employees after the Reed revelations had nothing to do with his retirement.

"It just was time," said McHugh, 58, who plans to move to Florida.

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