Balto. County might OK pay

Nine retirees working as school bus drivers would keep pensions

November 01, 1999|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

A band of retired Baltimore County employees -- most of them former police officers or firefighters -- might be able to collect both pension checks and paychecks though the arrangement violates local law.

The County Council is poised to carve an exemption tonight for nine workers told by the finance office this year to choose between retirement payments or their county jobs.

The primary reason for the break: The employees drive school buses, a high-stress, low-glamour job that the Board of Education has trouble filling. The academic year started with more than 50 vacancies.

"What better group of people can we have driving school buses?" asked Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat co-sponsoring the exemption.

County law, however, prohibits retired employees from being rehired and collecting pensions and salary. The practice is commonly called double-dipping.

The exemption expected to be approved tonight would apply only to the nine workers who collect an average of $26,597 a year in retirement pay, and about $18,700 as drivers.

The council's move would end months of hand-wringing over the issue that surfaced last spring after a telephone inquiry from a retiree looking for work. Told the practice of double-dipping wasn't permitted, the caller pointed county officials to the school bus drivers.

In May, the county budget office sent a letter to the nine drivers, giving them a choice: "forfeit your service retirement benefits during the duration of this employment, or discontinue your employment ."

For John Gerben, 57, who retired as a police detective in 1984 and has been driving a bus for a dozen years, the letter "was a kick in the face for all the years I put in."

"I'm too old to start a new career," Gerben said. "They should have told me years ago."

Gerben and others took their case to the politicians, who recently agreed informally to let them continue as dual-earners.

Council members say they are convinced that the drivers were unaware they were violating the county code. In one case, a retired police detective had been driving a bus for a dozen years without the county government's knowledge.

"My first impression was it sounds like double-dipping," said Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican.

But after listening to the drivers' pleas and studying the issue, he said he was persuaded to bend the rules.

"When you think through it, I think we ought to allow people who are retired from the county to come back as contractual employees," Skinner said. That way, the public can benefit from their skills and experience, he said.

Critics of double-dipping say it could provide a strong incentive for workers to retire at a young age. That would place a strain on the taxpayer-supported public retirement system, said county budget chief Fred Homan, because younger retirees could live longer and collect benefits for a longer period.

"Double-dipping can have a very, very dramatic effect on overall system financing if it goes on unfettered," Homan said.

Bus drivers, school maintenance workers and others participate in the same retirement system as most county employees. Teachers are in a separate state-sponsored plan.

The same bill that would allow the nine drivers to keep working also would require the school system to notify the county of all its new hires eligible to participate in retirement plans.

The measure would do little to help the county's bus driver shortage.

Baltimore County school officials say they aren't fully staffed, although education board spokesman Charles A. Herndon last week did not know how many of the district's 722 routes don't have permanent drivers. A recent national survey by School Bus Fleet magazine found that 71 percent of respondents faced shortfalls at their companies or districts.

While the school board would like to tap into the pool of retired police officers and firefighters -- they are familiar with the county's roads and usually have clean driving records and first-aid training -- the county administration has not devised a way to allow it across the board.

"We tried to be fair and compassionate," said Robert Barrett, a special assistant to County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who supports the exemption. The bill "is fair, but it lets the budget office enforce the law."

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