County police officers are rushing to cash in on their retirement benefits before proposed changes in their pensions can take effect, stripping the department of some of its most experienced officers.
Since June, when County Executive John G. Gary proposed sweeping changes in Anne Arundel's pension system, 15 corporals, one sergeant and one lieutenant, all with 20 or more years of experience, have retired, according to police spokesman Sgt. Jeff Kelley.
That is more than twice the seven officers that retired during the same period last year, although much fewer than the 54 who retired between June and September of 1992, when the 20-year retirement plan was introduced.
The 17 officers -- many of whom left for jobs in private industry or other police departments -- took with them more than 340 combined years of experience, leaving a huge void.
"You've got lieutenants in this department with only six or seven rTC years of experience and no road experience," said one officer who asked not to be identified.
More officers say they are considering retiring because of the proposed pension changes, which would reduce an officer's benefits by 16 percent over the course of retirement. The bill could pass as early as Monday and would take effect 45 days later, but the changes would not affect those already retired.
Kelly, who said the loss of experienced officers is partially filled by hiring officers from other jurisdictions, argued that the impetus for retirements in Arundel is not the proposed pension bill, but the existing retirement plan.
"The 20-year retirement plan is going to encourage people to retire early," he said. "They can retire at an earlier age, and they realize they are still viable for other employment outside of the Police Department. It makes good financial sense."
Cpl. Mike Belcher, a 20-year veteran who is eligible to retire, is trying to decide what to do.
"You'd think after 20 years, it'd be easy to retire, but it's not easy," he said.
Belcher said he'd like to work another 10 years, but choosing between preserving the pension plan he has and gambling on what he might have in a few years is tough.
"The bottom line is money in the long run," said Belcher, a father of four. "If I retire, and 15 years from now my pension is $50,000, or I retire in 10 years, and five years later my pension is $30,000, that's a big difference."
Former Lt. Dave Robinette didn't take any chances.
"I could see the handwriting on the wall," said Robinette, who retired in April. "It just seemed like [county leaders] were bound and determined to change the pension system, regardless of how it affected current or future employees.
"People like me, who have been there for 20 years, had bargained away pay raises and things like that to get that pension plan. Those people who were newly elected didn't remember that or could care less."