Incentive to remain becomes reason to go

Police, firefighters collect lump sums from pension program

April 09, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

For Col. Joseph Bolesta, the money he was offered to leave the Baltimore Police Department was too good to pass up. Former Maj. Tom Yeager hadn't planned to retire but pocketed his windfall and started another career.

They are among the 605 police officers and 570 firefighters who have enrolled in a retirement incentive program that started three years ago and can be taken advantage of for the first time this spring and summer.

"It was a tremendous opportunity to accrue money you'd never in your life be able to do," said Bolesta, a 33-year veteran who is retiring June 4.

"It prompted some people to stay longer than they would have stayed to take advantage of the money. It enabled others with 20 years on to build a nest egg and retire."

Yeager left Jan. 4, after 29 years, and became public safety director with the Downtown Partnership.

"I was going to stay another three years until my kids were out of college and my bills were paid," he said.

The incentive program, called Deferred Retirement Option Plan, or DROP, was instituted in 1996 by union and city officials who were worried that a slew of veteran officers and firefighters might leave at once.

They wanted to offer them an incentive to stay.

The program is similar to sanctioned double-dipping. Any officer or firefighter eligible to retire -- retirement is allowed after 20 years -- can enroll.

Pension money that would have been received, equal to a half-year's salary, is put into an interest-bearing account each year for a maximum of three years.

The money, which earns annual interest of 8.25 percent, can be withdrawn only upon retirement.

In each of those three years, those enrolled receive their full salaries.

The pension bonus checks will range from $60,000 to $200,000, depending on salary, accrued interest and unused sick and vacation time.

Between Jan. 1 and March 12, the police union said, 28 officers had retired under DROP. Through mid-March, 109 more had notified the department that they will retire under the program.

The Baltimore Fire Department has 570 members -- out of 1,700 -- eligible under DROP. Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a department spokesman, said he has no idea how many might take it. Ninety firefighters have left since Jan. 1.

Torres -- who is in DROP but said he does not intend to retire immediately -- said the Fire Department created temporary positions so it could hire beyond its authorized strength. As firefighters retire, those temporary employees will be moved into full-time jobs.

Pub Date: 4/09/99

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