Elected officials' pensions to remain high County system's terms among most generous

September 25, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Members of the Baltimore County Council won't try to change the county's lucrative pension system for elected officials this year, even though five of the county's seven councilmen agree that retirement with full pay after 20 years is too rich a reward for public service.

"I'm still committed to change, but now it would look like it was done for election purposes," said Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, who had considered introducing legislation limiting the pensions to 60 percent of salary.

Critics cite the $89,250-a-year pension County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger would get -- 85 percent of his salary -- if he wins re-election and retires in 2002, with 17 years of service behind him.

"For Dutch to get an $89,000 pension is truly outrageous," said outgoing Towson Republican Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a former ally of Ruppersberger's who is backing Republican John J. Bishop for county executive this year.

Ruppersberger, however, said Baltimore County officials pay a relatively large amount into their retirement plan. "I didn't take this job because of the pension," he said, arguing that when he became a councilman in 1985, he had no idea of becoming county executive. The executive was added to the pension plan in 1986, and Ruppersberger voted for it.

Created decades ago when public salaries were low, Baltimore County's system lets a County Council member or executive retire at full pay, regardless of age, after 20 years of combined service, and after contributing 13.85 percent of pay while working.

By contrast, Maryland's governor or Baltimore's mayor gets a pension limited to 50 percent. General Assembly members get two-thirds of their pay after age 60.

Anne Arundel, Carroll and Montgomery counties use modified 401(k) retirement systems that pay whatever is saved and earned by investments.

Howard County limits the pension to 49 percent of salary, and Harford County uses the state pension system. Prince George's would pay an executive with Ruppersberger's time and salary a pension of about $23,000 a year, officials said.

Baltimore County Council members have said that the county's system is too generous. Only Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, and North County-Owings Mills Republican T. Bryan McIntire would not express an opinion.

With limited time to change the law before the next term of office begins in early December -- and no one planning to file legislation -- the system appears likely to remain in place for now.

That rankles critics who see the council's unwillingness to act as an example of self-interest.

"They benefit," said John D. "Jack" Manley, a Republican council candidate from Catonsville whose wife, former one-term councilwoman Berchie Lee Manley, receives a county pension. He notes that the County Council and executive's pensions are better than "95 percent of their constituents."

Yet the system retains its defenders -- including Ruppersberger, who will have contributed $145,000 to his pension by 2002.

Ruppersberger, the only executive with council experience since the law was changed in 1986, said he does not believe the system is too generous. Even so, he said, "Down the road, we'll look at the system and see if it's equitable and fair."

And even critic Riley, who favors a 60 percent limit, defended the pensions for council members, whose jobs are part-time.

"It has been difficult to save for retirement on a public official's salary," he said. Council pay is to increase to $38,500 in the next term, with the chairman getting $43,000.

It's an argument that doesn't persuade everyone.

"I've been doing volunteer work for 20 years for free," said Wayne S. Skinner, a Republican council candidate seeking Riley's Towson seat. "I see the County Council as a public service."

Pub Date: 9/25/98

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