Ecker OKs retirement proposals Police, firefighters could collect pension after 20 years on job

Republicans may balk

Concerns about cost in future may spur council to vote 'no'

February 21, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker has approved new union contracts that would allow police and firefighters to retire in 20, rather than 25, years. But County Council Republicans -- fearing millions of dollars in new costs down the road -- may block the deal.

After months of negotiations, administration and union officials have joined forces, contending that the change would save money for the county because of concessions the unions have made to get the 20-year retirement.

But without serious lobbying, council Republicans may hand fellow Republican Ecker a rare defeat.

"If the average person dies at age 80, we're going to pay some of these people for 40 years after their retirement," says Councilman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican. "Down the road, can the county afford this kind of a program?"

Drown and other council Republicans also say that the retirement package could cause a brain drain, with the best police and firefighters abandoning the department at the peak of their careers, starting second careers with the cushion of their pension.

Anne Arundel County officials cited the same issues last year when they did the opposite with their retirement plans -- extending the minimum service time from 20 years to 25 years. The change affects only new hires.

"We had a lot of good officers who we thought had a lot of good experience who were leaving," said Robert J. Dvorak, chief administrative officer in Anne Arundel.

In Howard, the new contracts would allow police and firefighters who retire after 20 years to receive 50 percent their salaries each year for the rest of their lives. For each year of work after 20 years, retired police or firefighters would receive 1.5 percent more, to a maximum of 65 percent.

The current retirement plan allows retirement before 25 years, but there are penalties. The full 50 percent payment now does not begin until after the 25th year.

The 260-member police union and the 167-member firefighters' union consider the new retirement plan a top priority and made significant concessions to win it.

At a hearing Tuesday night, Michael Anuszewski Jr., a 14-year veteran firefighter, fought nerves and mouth numbness caused by a stroke to tell the County Council about the pressures of the job, which he blames for a number of health problems.

"This is a personal area for me as three years ago I had major heart surgery at the age of 30," Anuszewski, 34, told the council. "If it can happen to me at the age of 30, imagine what could happen to someone at the age of 55 or 60."

With the recent change in Arundel, Howard's new package would be average for the region, if approved.

Prince George's County, Baltimore and Baltimore County have 20-year retirement at 50 percent pay or better for their public safety employees. Montgomery County's pays 50 percent at the 25th year, and it is not available until age 46.

Howard County officials say the new retirement plan won't cost taxpayers any more because the unions accepted concessions that would save more than the retirement package would cost.

Under the new plan, Howard's police officers would work 12-hour shifts rather than 9 1/2 -hour shifts.

The department has estimated that change would dramatically reduce the amount of overlap needed between shifts, allowing it to eliminate 15 positions and save $1 million a year.

By comparison, the new police retirement package would cost the county an extra $857,000 in contributions to the system -- meaning the county comes out ahead if both estimates hold up.

"If the council's only concerned with the fiscal issues, if there's no other agenda, this should [pass]," said Cpl. John Paparazzo, police union president.

For firefighters, the concessions are harder to quantify financially, though the union says they would save the county $1.8 million -- far more than the $611,000 in extra contributions to the retirement system.

The concessions include ending the policy of paying firefighters during most training classes, changing leave policy to eliminate overtime costs and allowing volunteer firefighters to cover nights and weekends at some stations.

Union heads say the numbers are clear, but council Republicans -- who have several more meetings left to discuss the issue -- say they still need convincing.

"I'm going to have to think long and hard about this," said council Chairman Dennis R. Schrader, a North Laurel Republican. "Once we drop this thing to 20, we can't go back."

Pub Date: 2/21/97

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