Balto. County, fire leaders agree on pension package

Union members to vote on lump-sum option plan

March 06, 2001|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County firefighters and paramedics have reached a tentative agreement with county officials on a new pension package, officials said yesterday.

Under the agreement between union leaders and the administration of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, 1,000 paid firefighters and paramedics would have the option of receiving large lump-sum payments in exchange for reduced annual pensions if they stay on the job at least 32 years.

The incentive - called a deferred retirement option program, or DROP - is designed to keep experienced firefighters on the job longer to save the county costs associated with turnover as well as ensure greater public safety.

Officials hope to keep firefighters working longer than their current average of 29 years of service.

"Our citizens should expect to be served by the most experienced, most highly trained firefighters and paramedics we can find," Ruppersberger said. "The DROP program will help."

Michael K. Day Sr., president of Baltimore County Professional Firefighters and Paramedics Local 1311, praised the agreement as a fair compromise that would bolster morale and retention efforts. "It affords an additional pension option to our membership that includes a lump sum at the time of retirement, which helps assure their financial security," Day said.

The union's executive board and its negotiators are urging members to support the proposal when they vote March 27, Day said.

If approved, the program would take effect in 2004 and become the first DROP option for Baltimore County employees. It would cost the county an additional $1 million a year, which would come from the general fund.

Under the proposal, the lowest-ranking firefighter who retired after 32 years would receive a $127,000 lump sum and a $37,000 annual pension, as opposed to a $40,000 pension if he retired without entering DROP. A captain with similar service would receive a $185,000 lump sum and a $54,000 annual pension, compared to a $59,000 pension without DROP.

Under the current program, firefighters and paramedics with 20 years of service who are at least 50 receive a pension equal to half their salary at retirement. Those who stay 25 years can retire regardless of age and get 60 percent.

DROP programs exist for public employees across the country as an incentive to hire or retain police officers, firefighters and teachers. Baltimore City's DROP program, offered to police and firefighters since 1996, is credited with extending the average career of police officers by more than a year.

In January, county police officers rejected an offer for a DROP.

Cole Weston, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, said it is unfair to compare police officers to firefighters. "Our health issues and mortality rates require different needs," Weston said. "Their people stay longer."

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