Council OKs reform plan for pensions Unanimous vote cuts retiree benefits for county employees

'The best we could do'

Meeting also includes passage of obstacle to 'mega-church'

December 03, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

A unanimous County Council last night approved pension legislation that for the first time in Anne Arundel's 31 years of charter government reduces county employee retirement benefits, excluding bills voided by the courts.

In addition, the council passed legislation that threatens a Baptist parish's plan to build a "mega-church" complex in rural South County.

The pension measure, which is the core of County Executive John G. Gary's effort to reduce personnel costs, represents a major victory for the Republican administration. After five months, two versions of the legislation and more than 75 amendments, the council voted 7-0 to endorse the latest of Gary's proposals to pare personnel costs, which account for 75 percent of county spending.

"I'm pleased it's over with and I'm sorry it took this long," Gary said.

Said George F. Bachman, a Linthicum Democrat and one of the bill's chief critics: "It's not a perfect bill, make no mistake. But I think it's the best we could do."

The changes will save Anne Arundel $3 million a year, less than the $4.3 million the administration expected to save with its first pension bill that expired in September. At the same time, almost 40 top county officials will see pension benefits increase by an average of about $5,500 a year as their retirement plan is incorporated into one for general employees.

The bill continues to guarantee annual cost-of-living pension raises for the county's 3,500 employees based on their years of service to date. But only 60 percent of cost-of-living adjustments based on future years will be guaranteed.

The remaining 40 percent will be linked to earnings of the county's pension investment portfolio. The bill creates a board of trustees to supervise pension operations.

Most important for county savings is the provision creating a second pension plan for new employees that will not require employee contributions, which now amount to 4 percent of a worker's annual pay, but would cut retirement benefits in half.

For example, a current general county employee making $30,000 a year can expect an annual pension benefit of $12,000 upon retirement after 20 years. Over that time, the employee would contribute roughly $24,000 to his county-run retirement plan.

Under the new rules, a future employee making the same salary would receive a $6,000 annual pension benefit after 20 years. But the employee would save the $24,000, which could be invested privately.

Approval of the bill ends a year of personnel reform that has created pay for performance raises, established a 40-hour work week for all full-time employees, featured rancorous union impasse hearings and redefined more than 1,500 jobs.

Many of those measures have served as models for other Maryland counties. The county's pension bill, which overhauls a $750 million retirement system, could be another model.

But some union leaders never supported the measure.

"We have a bill in hand which is ill-conceived and ill-advised, both legally and ethically," said LeRoy A. Wilkison, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 1563.

Gary, who campaigned for pension reform in 1994, has said he will now draft an early retirement plan to thin county ranks by as many as 100 employees.

Next year, the administration plans to seek a multi-year labor agreement with Anne Arundel's seven bargaining units that would include pay raises.

"I think we have a bill that's a first in the state," said Councilwoman Diane R. Evans, the Arnold Republican re-elected last night as the panel's chairwoman.

Church bill passes

The "mega-church" bill, passed by a 5-2 vote, is a victory for Davidsonville homeowners who opposed Riverdale Baptist Church's plan to build a $6 million complex on 41 acres at the corner of U.S. 50 and Davidsonville Road.

But the bill is a setback for religious leaders, who have used direct mail and Christian radio to oppose the measure. Local pastors say the legislation will stifle plans to build sanctuaries or expand existing ones.

North County Democrats George F. Bachman and James E. DeGrange opposed the measure.

Councilman John J. Klocko, a Crofton Republican who drafted the bill, has said it strengthens the community's voice in planning large projects on rural land. Such property is among the least expensive in the county, making it affordable for small churches.

Because of the bill, Riverdale now needs permission from the county's administrative hearing officer to build a 1,500-seat sanctuary, recreation and learning center, basketball and racquetball courts and a 700-space parking.

The Prince George's County parish did not need such special permission before the bill passed. Church leaders fear they will not receive approval because of opposition from many Davidsonville homeowners.

The bill affects all church construction on rural land if plans call for parking lots larger than 100,000 square feet, more than two acres of blacktop. County law requires a church to provide one parking space for every three seats.

The legislation also affects hospitals, service organizations, country clubs, private schools and other institutions that require parking lots larger than 50,000 square feet.

Pub Date: 12/03/96

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