Repeal of pension benefits rejected

Appellate court rules Anne Arundel County legally adopted changes

May 26, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The last major legal effort to strip generous pension enhancements for a group of top Anne Arundel County officials, most of whom no longer work for the county, failed yesterday when an appellate court ruled that the pension changes of the 1980s were legally adopted.

"The people never win anything," said Robert C. Schaeffer of Severna Park, chairman of the board of the Anne Arundel County Taxpayers Association. The organization sued the county to try to remove the benefit changes that left the pension plan underfunded by nearly $7 million.

A self-described Republican, he said he was not surprised by the state Court of Special Appeals ruling and blamed Democrats. He said the enhancements were made during the Democratic administration of O. James Lighthizer, and Democrats, as the longtime majority party in the state, appointed most judges.

An appeal is unlikely, he said.

In the mid-1990s, a Republican administration tried to remove the pension benefits given by a Democratic one that were benefiting many Democratic retirees, and some Republicans. Several law-suits resulted.

In a federal case, the county unsuccessfully defended a vote by a Republican-led County Council to roll back the benefits. The county claimed improprieties by past county officials, which the officials denied.

In the most recent case, the county successfully argued to up-hold the enhancements. The taxpayers group argued that elected officials created a lucrative pension plan for themselves and other elected and appointed officials in the 1980s because of self-interest. It also claimed that the six pension bills were the result of breaches of public trust.

But the judges said that was not for them to determine.

"Courts, however, are not empowered to pass on the wisdom or propriety of legislation such as the 1980 pension bills, but are limited to considering the validity of the challenged bills," they said.

The enhanced package benefited about 80 to 90 appointed and elected officials, most of whom no longer work for the county.

Upgrades included a 100 percent survivor benefit with no extra pay-in or reduction in pension for the retired employee -- a rarity in white-collar pension plans -- and changed the retirement age from 60 to 50. It was among the plushest pension plans in the state.

The plan was closed in 1994 during the Republican administration of Robert R. Neall, after retirements revealed an unfunded liability of nearly $7 million.

The county is paying that off, said Thomas W. Mullenix, county director of employee benefits.

Since 1994, all elected and appointed officials have been in the same benefits package as county workers.

In 1996, the closed plan was merged into the county employee retirement plan.

"The legislation that closed it... went a long way to solving the problem," said Patricia A. Logan, senior assistant county attorney who defended the legality of the plan in the taxpayers group lawsuit.

The 1994 Republican attack on the pension plan helped propel John O. Gary into the county executive office.

Once there, he launched an effort to undo the plan, including hiring John R. Greiber Jr., attorney for the taxpayers group challenging the validity of the pension enhancements, to help investigate the background of the pension changes. Neither Gary nor Greiber returned telephone messages yesterday.

A Republican-led County Council voted to remove some of the enhancements. But the enhancements have survived repeated challenges in state and federal courts.

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