Westminster council to vote on police pension proposal

State-run LEOPS plan expected to be approved

February 24, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Almost a year after police officers in Westminster began lobbying for a more lucrative pension plan, the proposal that they have favored from the beginning is to be put to a vote at tonight's Common Council meeting.

The proposal that would allow city police to receive retirement benefits under the state-run Law Enforcement Officers Pension System (LEOPS) appears to have enough support to pass, said Councilman Roy L. Chiavacci, who is chairman of a committee that examined pension plans for the force.

This month, all 43 members of the Westminster police force signed a petition in support of joining the system, which returns 50 percent of an officer's salary after 25 years of service. The officers' agreement to join the system was a necessary step toward the council's final approval.

`Boon' for officers

Joining LEOPS would be a "boon" for the officers, said Chiavacci, who headed the committee formed to find a pension plan.

"It puts them in a higher league with other law enforcement officers," he said.

Chiavacci said the city also would benefit because it could entice better candidates for the force.

"It sets Westminster apart since only a handful of municipalities are in it, like Cambridge and Hyattsville," he said. "We want to recognize that police are unique in the job they do and that we're interested in recruiting the best and retaining the ones we do have. This fits the bill."

The path to tonight's scheduled vote has been a rocky one, with the first alternative proposed by the city in April not only failing to impress officers, but prompting criticism at council meetings.

Officers complained that plan required them to work 30 years before being eligible for retirement benefits and didn't pay enough for a family to live on. The Common Council withdrew its proposed supplemental retirement plan in May after it was clear officers would not support it.

Chiavacci and council President Damian L. Halstad began that month to meet with a group of officers to determine what police were looking for in a pension plan.

They reached the conclusion that LEOPS was the best plan for the officers.

$364,000 annual cost

According to studies done by the city in the spring, adopting the LEOPS plan would cost the city $364,000 a year, or $17 million over 25 years.

The city has $125,000 set aside in its current budget toward paying for the plan.

The city is hoping that the bulk of the more than $200,000 difference will be paid by the state through rebates -- about $180,000 a year for 25 years, Chiavacci said.

Officers also are giving up their pay raise this year to defray the cost.

But if the state can't deliver the money, the city is willing to consider a tax increase.

"Taxpayers would know it would be specifically for this," Chiavacci said. "Our sense is that they're prepared to do that as a taxpayer. I certainly would."

Under the proposal, officers could retire after 25 years and earn 50 percent of the average of their three highest-paying years.

Under the city's current pension plan, which also applies to the municipality's civil employees, officers are allowed to retire at age 55, or after 30 years on the force, with yearly payouts ranging from 32 percent to 42 percent.

The LEOPS plan would go into effect in July if approved.

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