Pension system needs careful surgery Anne Arundel County: Legitimate concerns of government employees can't be dismissed.

July 18, 1996

REFORMING ANNE ARUNDEL County's pension system should be delicate surgery. Most important, the patient should not be in worse shape after the operation.

Judging from the events at a recent County Council meeting, the scalpel needs sharpening, the anesthetic needs to be strengthened -- and the surgeon needs to calm down. Up to this point, the pension reform effort of County Executive John Gary has been done without inflicting a great deal of pain on current employees. However, to realize even greater savings, the county is considering some potentially damaging changes.

County employees believe that the Gary administration, in its zeal to pare growing personnel costs, will sacrifice their future welfare. Elimination of an annual cost-of-living adjustment may make a great deal of sense to fiscal officers seeking to balance tight budgets. But for past and present workers, the change represents a new element of uncertainty about their retirement incomes.

Rather than dismiss employees' fears as overwrought -- as did Chief Administrative Officer Robert J. Dvorak in a profane manner at a public meeting last week -- county officials should listen to their legitimate concerns. County employees have been working with a certain set of expectations. The administration's proposals would reduce future benefits and requires a sea change in employee thinking. It should now be clear to Mr. Dvorak, if it was not last week, that his use of foul language and disparagement of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson in reacting to worker concerns didn't help his boss' case.

The crux of this issue is how to achieve pension savings with minimal harm to current and future retirees. To date, the various choices and their trade-offs have not been clearly explained to employees or taxpayers. The Gary administration could allay some of the employees' worst fears. And it could reduce opposition to its planned changes, perhaps by making pre-tax ++ savings accounts more attractive and accessible to workers.

Revamping the pension system cannot and should not be bulldozed into law. Listening to concerns and responding appropriately would make prudent reform much less traumatic.

Pub Date: 7/18/96

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