Retirement in 20 years is unlikely Council Republicans stand firm against police, fire unions

Officers made concessions

GOP members say proposal would cost millions

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

The push for 20-year retirement for Howard County police and firefighters is nearly dead, a victim of County Council Republicans wary of the costs and convinced that a tough stand will bring a better deal at the bargaining table.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker, himself a Republican, yesterday called the new retirement package "a priority." But so far, he has not persuaded a single County Council Republican to join him -- a rare failure of political influence for Ecker.

"The county executive seems to be so popular in Howard County," said Democratic Councilman C. Vernon Gray, "and yet he does not seem that popular among the council Republicans."

The police and firefighter unions separately negotiated deals with the Ecker administration to shorten the time needed to retire from 25 years to 20. And they have made contract concessions that they and administration officials agree would save enough money to pay for the beefed-up benefits.

But faced with likely failure at the County Council, the unions are preparing for their next move.

The firefighter union has a strategy session scheduled next week and would likely return to the bargaining table. But John &L Paparazzo, president of the police union, said that, after years of seeking a better retirement package, his union would give up for now. The council already has approved other parts of the police contract.

"If the County Council slaps us in the face by not voting for this again, that's it," Paparazzo said. "What's the point of going back to the table?"

Council Republicans -- Councilmen Darrel E. Drown, Charles C. Feaga and Dennis R. Schrader -- say they doubt administration and union claims that the savings built into their new contracts would pay for the improved retirement benefits.

Both now have contracts allowing normal retirement -- with half pay for the rest of their lives -- after 25 years. Retirement is possible at 20 years at a substantially lower rate,

The new retirement package would allow firefighters and police officers to retire with 50 percent of their final salary after 20 years. The rate would improve with years of service, up to a maximum of 65 percent after 30 years.

Ecker said the change is essential to keep Howard County competitive with its neighbors.

"We need to be able to recruit and retain police officers and firefighters," Ecker said. "And we're not competitive now."

Cost feared

The change would make Howard's retirement plan match that of three jurisdictions in the region. Prince George's County, Baltimore and Baltimore County allow full retirement for public safety employees after 20 years.

Montgomery County requires 25 years. And Anne Arundel County, citing budget pressures, just switched from 20 to 25 years.

Howard County Council Republicans say that changing Howard's retirement package could cost the county millions of dollars for decades to come.

Feaga, of West Friendship, said allowing retirement after 20 years could break the pension fund.

"I am going to vote in the way that will preserve their pensions and will preserve their jobs," Feaga said. "And they won't be very happy."

Under the current retirement package, the county pays 15.1 percent of payroll to the retirement fund for police officers and firefighters. The employees also make substantial contributions individually.

For full retirement after 20 years, administration officials say, the county contribution would have to increase 6.8 percentage points -- to nearly 22 percent. That would be an increase of $857,000 for police officers and $611,000 for firefighters in the coming budget year alone.

Council Republicans contend that even if the new union contracts saved that much money or more this year, the long-term liability makes the retirement packages a bad deal for the county.

More expenses

Drown, of Ellicott City, said the extra 6.8 percentage points for retirement benefits would drive up expenses every time the county wanted to add more police officers or firefighters. "That's an absolute, guaranteed, write-in cost every time we talk salary."

That position frustrates union officials.

The police union has agreed to a sweeping scheduling change -- switching from 9 1/2 -hour shifts to 12-hour shifts -- to save the money needed for their improved retirement benefits.

Police Chief James N. Robey has said the change would dramatically reduce the overlap between shifts, allowing the department to eliminate 15 positions, add two round-the-clock patrol beats and save $1 million a year.

"If it's strictly money, the money's there," said Paparazzo, the union president. "We've proven this."

The savings to pay for the firefighters' retirement are less clear, though union officials say changes in scheduling, leave policy and training rules would save the county at least $1.3 million -- far more than the $611,000 the new retirement plan would cost.

A better deal

Unlike police officers, the firefighter contract may have to be completely renegotiated if the County Council rejects the retirement changes.

Council Republicans say that could lead to a better deal for the county, but Jeff Loomis, president of the union, said firefighters may seek to shorten their 52-hour work weeks, a change that could force the county to hire more firefighters.

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed," Loomis said, "but we need to look at what's going to happen in the future if it doesn't go through."

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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