Emotions run high in pension-package debate Shortage of details on 20-year retirement irks council Republicans

February 25, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Emotions ran high last night as the Howard County Council began wrestling with a proposal to let police and firefighters retire in 20 years rather than 25.

The council's Republican majority became frustrated with a shortage of financial details about the new retirement package -- approved by County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a fellow Republican -- and by the pressure to act on it quickly.

"You guys are shoving this down our throat," Council Chairman Dennis R. Schrader told administration officials, "and I'm not about to accept it."

Improved retirement benefits are at the heart of new contracts recently approved by the police and firefighter unions.

Union and administration officials contend that the contracts include concessions such as shift changes to pay for the retirement packages, which would allow retirement at half of base salary after 20 years.

The retirement payment would steadily improve for those who work longer, to a maximum of 65 percent for those who work 30 years before retiring.

The package would make Howard's retirement benefits average for public safety workers in the region.

Jeffrey Loomis, president of the fire union, said firefighters work hard -- and risk their lives -- for decent benefits.

Loomis himself nearly died a month ago when he tried to rescue a suspected car thief stranded on an island in the flooded Patapsco River near Ellicott City.

"I'm the guy who kisses his wife every morning not knowing if I'm going to come back," said Loomis, who said he thought he was dying when he lost consciousness in the river that night.

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a West Friendship Republican, said that many jobs -- including his, farming -- are dangerous.

"There are a lot of dangerous jobs out there," he said, "but it's not fair to bring that to the bargaining table."

Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat who supports the new retirement package, replied: "But you're putting your life on the line for your fellow citizen. That's a higher calling."

Several more meetings are planned to debate the retirement package, but it appears to be in serious trouble.

For firefighters, the plan would cost the county $680,000 more each year than the current retirement system. And Republicans last night balked at estimates from fire union officials showing $1.8 million annually in offsetting savings from the new contract.

Much of those savings, said administration officials, would be in the future. They would not immediately reduce the county's firefighting budget.

"It's government accounting," joked Councilman Darrel E. Drown, Ellicott City Republican.

Pub Date: 2/25/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.