Pension proposal draws criticism

Disabled officers reject view that plan would help them

May 16, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Franklin O. Lilly didn't plan to retire early from the Howard County police force. But a badly twisted left leg gradually worsened into arthritic knees, forcing him out on a disability pension in 1996 after 16 years.

Now he and several other disabled former police officers -- all of whom receive two-thirds of their former pay -- are upset about a proposed change to the county's pension system that the Robey administration says will help them.

Last night at a public hearing at the George Howard building in Ellicott City, three of the retirees urged the County Council to table and rewrite the bill, which would change the formula that governs their pension and job incomes.

FOR THE RECORD - The cost to the county of changing the pension earnings cap for retired Howard County police and firefighters was misstated in an article Tuesday in the Howard County edition of The Sun. A bill before the County Council estimates it would cost $25,000 to $45,000 a year to allow nine retirees the option of eliminating the cap in return for reducing their pensions from two-thirds to half their former full-time pay.
The Sun regrets the error.

Nine retired Howard police officers and firefighters get disability pensions that limit their outside earnings from post-retirement jobs. They want the county to eliminate the cap on the new earnings.

Doing that, however, would cost the county from $25,000 to $45,000 a year, officials said.

The Robey bill would allow the retirees to earn as much from new jobs as they can -- but only if they agree to have their pensions cut to half of their old salary.

They are now allowed to earn enough above their pensions to equal their old salary, plus $3,000. Anything above that cuts into their pensions -- replacing pension money dollar for dollar.

Jimmie Saylor, the county's human resources administrator, said it would not be fair to eliminate the earnings cap for retirees but leave it in place for current officers when they retire.

"We want to give the nine retirees the same choice available to current employees," Saylor told the council.

The former officers don't see it that way.

"How can you tell me that I have to retire and then tell me how much I can earn?" Lilly asked. "It's not only unfair, but it's unjust," he said.

The three officers who testified last night said they wanted to remain on the force, but were forced out and made to feel like burdens to the county because they could no longer pass the stringent physical performance tests.

The earnings cap upsets them even more.

"It's nothing less than an outrage," testified retired Officer Raymond Walsh, 39, president of the Association of Retired Police Officers of Howard County. He was forced to retire after a 10-year career because of a foot injury.

Walsh brought his wife and three young children -- all under 5 -- to show the council why he needs more money.

Walsh said he can earn only $16,100 in his private security job before he starts losing dollars from his $26,700 pension. "How do I support my family and save money for college for my children?" he asked.

Former police Cpl. Charles M. Ellenberger, 54, a 22-year veteran when he retired after shoulder surgery in 1993, said the private security corporation he owns earns so much money that he gave up his disability pension in favor of a regular pension.

What irks the retirees, said the three who testified, were the sharp pay raises recently won by officers in the last two years.

Ellenberger said a corporal makes nearly $65,000 and thus would earn a higher pension, compared with the $40,000 he was making when he retired.

Walsh said he would take the 50 percent pension, if he could have 50 percent of the current pay scale.

The council will discuss the issue at a work session next week and vote on the bill next month.

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