Ample pension draws notice

Critics question wisdom of generous benefit plan for Balto. County Council

October 16, 2006|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,Sun Reporter

Thanks to a policy set three decades ago, some politicians up for re-election in Baltimore County next month stand to reap the benefits of what is arguably the region's most lucrative pension plan for elected officials.

Four of the seven County Council members would be in line for annual pensions of more than $40,000 if re-elected. And one county councilman could, with a win, look forward to being the first on the panel to collect the equivalent of his full salary of $54,000 - for life.

The council members, most of whom have full-time jobs in private business, say they run for office to serve the public and not for the money. But some observers say generous retirement benefits entice people to repeatedly seek re-election - creating, in one's words, "career politicians."

"The incentive to remain for the pension is a rather strong one," said George Liebmann, volunteer executive director of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research in Baltimore. Commenting on legislators in general, he added, "You've got these lifetime councilmen who just won't retire because the pension gets better each year."

While one Baltimore County councilman says the benefits should be scaled back, most council members say they see no problem with the policy. They say it was written well before they took office, and that they contribute nearly 14 percent of their salary to the plans - more than their counterparts in other jurisdictions.

"Is the pension nice? Sure it's nice," said Council Chairman John A. Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat. "But in my opinion it's secondary, because I run for public office to make a difference."

Olszewski, like the six other council members, is running for re-election, which is not unusual in a county that, unlike Howard and Anne Arundel counties, does not impose term limits on council members. Since 1994, only one council member has not sought re-election.

The county's policy allows a council member who retires after 20 years to receive the equivalent of his full salary - a benefit unmatched among governments in the area.

Vincent J. Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat, would be the first councilman to win a fifth four-year term since the pension plan has been in place. If Gardina, 50, wins and finishes the term, he will be immediately eligible to receive his full salary as a pension.

Like other council members, he points to the hours he puts into council work.

"It really has jeopardized my personal career over the years," said Gardina, a former county police officer and state worker who teaches at a private school in the county. "I'm not as eligible for promotions. I'm not as eligible for transfers, primarily because of the amount of time it takes" to serve on the council.

Gardina's Republican opponent in the council race is also vested in the pension plan. Wayne M. Skinner served on the council from 1998 to 2002. Skinner, deputy director of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation, will also receive a pension for his more than two decades as a state employee.

Besides Gardina, four council members would be eligible to receive retirement benefits in four years if they win re-election. Fullerton Democrat Joseph Bartenfelder, a farmer; Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat Kevin B. Kamenetz, a lawyer; north county Republican T. Bryan McIntire, a retired lawyer; and Catonsville Democrat Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a surety bond underwriter, would all be guaranteed pensions equal to 80 percent of their salaries if they win in November.

County Executive James T. Smith Jr. would, if he wins a second term in November, be eligible for retirement income of $60,000 a year - on top of the $90,000 annual pension he would receive for his years as a Circuit Court judge.

A spokesman for Smith pointed out that the county executive has not been paid his pensions for his time as a county councilman and judge since taking office as an executive.

The pension policy for county elected officials was established in the early 1970s, when council members earned $3,000 a year. Officeholders become vested after four years, and can receive pension payments at age 55 or after 16 years in office. The pension is calculated at 5 percent for every year of service, multiplied by the highest yearly salary.

The council changed the plan in 1999 after news reports that then-County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger would leave office with a pension of $89,250 under a policy that did not distinguish between years served on the council and as county executive. Now the two are factored separately.

Pensions in other counties are less lucrative.

Baltimore City Council members must serve 12 years before they qualify for the plan. They could receive a pension equal to 2.5 percent of the current council salary multiplied by years of service. Howard County Council members, limited to three terms, could receive up to 18.6 percent of their salary once they reach age 62.

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