Fire union to vote on pension

Members would get retirement at half pay after 20 years' service

Howard County

March 07, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's firefighters will vote, starting tomorrow, on an improved pension package that won't cost them an extra cent - but is less alluring than the deal county police have approved.

The tentative agreement would greatly improve pensions for the county's 282 uniformed firefighters, officials said, at an added cost to the county of $500,000 a year. The firefighters would get the same 20-year retirement at half pay as police. But firefighters would get 65 percent after 25 years, compared with 75 percent for police officers retiring after the same service.

Michael B. Rund, president of the Howard County Professional Firefighters Association, said his negotiating team rejected a package that would have provided higher payouts for firefighters who serve longer than 20 years because that option would have required hefty out-of-pocket costs to union members.

"We had to grapple with how much is too much," Rund said. He said that some of his members are angry because the deal does not match the police package but that after talking it over and checking with lawyers and other area fire unions, "it was actually pretty easy to say this [the higher-cost option] is not a smart way to do this."

The option rejected by the firefighters included a 70 percent pension after 25 years and 80 percent after 30 years.

Rund said that to get that deal, firefighters would have had to increase their annual contribution to 12.4 percent of their pay from 7.7 percent - more than $2,000 a year for most employees. He estimated that same amount invested at 8 percent interest would return $210,000 over a 30-year career.

The union president said some of his members are angry that the agreement doesn't equal what the police achieved, but he said that "from everyone we talked to, the amount of money the police decided to contribute was pretty much unheard of."

And while veterans like himself would benefit by paying only a few years of higher contributions before retiring, the county firefighters "chose me to look out for the best interests of the organization," Rund said.

The firefighters' choice made no difference to the county, said county Labor Commissioner Robert S. Lazarewicz, because the county's costs would remain the same. "From their perspective, it was a question of out-of-pocket expense," he said.

Lazarewicz said he is also negotiating with the county's 911 operators, correctional officers and members of Local 3085 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, most of them public works employees.

Edgar Holman, president of the 52-member 911 unit, said his members want better pensions, too, and the county has agreed to study that issue. Now, 911 operators may retire after 30 years at 46 percent of salary but would like to get that amount after a 25-year career. "We're finding that 30 years at this job is hard," Holman said.

Fire Chief Joseph A. Herr, who took over the department Dec. 4, said he was pleased the firefighters "came to a tentative agreement."

The new package, he said, would make it easier for Howard to recruit firefighters and paramedics and keep experienced people. "It definitely gives us the ability to have recruitment and retention comparable with surrounding jurisdictions," he said.

Howard's Fire Department has 25 vacancies, with a new recruit class expected to begin this month.

Rund said the new system, if approved by the union and the County Council, would match Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties' retirement systems but would not be as attractive as the plan in Prince George's County.

Voting will take place tomorrow night and Friday, Rund said.

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