What was once a hypothetical is now becoming reality: The first of Baltimore County's part-time elected officials is ready to retire at a relatively young age, and will collect a pension equal to his full salary for the rest of his life.
County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a 54-year-old Democrat, is set to be the first person in county history to serve five council terms. That makes him eligible to collect his $54,000 council salary as a retirement benefit as long as he lives. It also means there's no financial incentive for him to run again, even if he had the desire. He didn't mention the perk when he revealed plans to step down late next year.
FOR THE RECORD - In articles published Tuesday and Wednesday about the Baltimore County Council's pensions, two facts were incorrect. Although charter government began in 1956 and council salaries remained at $3,000 until 1974, the current council pension system dates from changes made effective July 1, 1971. The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.
Four other council members, completing their fourth terms, are right behind.
The benefit is far more generous than those offered by other local governments, or by the state.
Council members don't offer much criticism, noting that they didn't create the plan and that they contribute nearly 14 percent of their pay toward the retirement system.
"Those were the rules in place long before Gardina was elected," said Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Democrat, adding that other county employees contribute a far lower portion of their pay to the plan. "No member of the present council passed a law increasing the benefit."
But others say the system is out of whack.
"It's absolutely outrageous," said David Boyd, a retired Towson University professor and self-appointed fiscal watchdog who helped lead a property tax revolt in Baltimore County two decades ago. "It's typical of the good old boys. They're all buddies, out for themselves."
Donald F. Norris, head of the public policy department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said "full salary for life after 20 years in a part-time political job is outrageous."
"Politicians are almost always very nice to themselves with regard to pensions and other perks - nicer than they are to their employees, or to citizens," Norris said.
The pension plan was first devised in the mid-1950s, when Baltimore County adopted its first charter, but it has grown more lucrative as council salaries have risen.
After Gardina, Democrats Kamenetz, Joseph Bartenfelder, Stephen G. Sam Moxley and Republican T. Bryan McIntyre would be in the same position if they run again and win.
Kamenetz, 51, and Bartenfelder, 52, are considering a run for county executive next year - which could boost their pensions even more.
If one of them is successful and serves two terms as executive, he could retire with 80 percent of his highest council pay ($48,000, which includes a premium for the year they spent as council chairman, a position that pays $6,000 extra), plus an added 40 percent of the executive's pay ($60,000) as a pension, if salaries don't increase.
At current pay, that would provide a combined $108,000 annual pension, plus annual cost of living increases, for life.
Baltimore County's pensions for legislators remain the most generous in the area, though they were devised in 1956 when council members earned only $3,000 a year.
Council members get 20 percent of their highest single year's pay for each four-year term. They are vested after one term and once they serve four terms, they can start collecting as soon as they retire.
By comparison, state legislators receive 60 percent of their $43,500 salary as a pension, after 20 years of service, and Maryland governors' pensions are half their salary, after the maximum two terms.
In Baltimore, city council members can collect only half their pay after 20 years but get no pension before serving three terms. Other counties either use the state's less generous system, or have 401(k)-style contribution programs. Howard County council members are limited to three terms.
Bartenfelder, a former state delegate, said he'd prefer a 60 percent cap on future members' council pensions to match state legislators pensions, but he doubts he could get the votes.
A discussion on such a cap came up in 1999 but "never went anywhere," he said.
Former two-term Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Republican lawyer who represented the Towson area from 1990-1998 and ran for executive in 2002, said council members deserve a decent pension, especially if voters value experience.
"It's a fair pension, when a person has [only] served on the county council," he said, though he felt the pension was too generous before rules were changed in 1999 to calculate the executive's pension separately.
But Wayne Skinner, a former Republican councilman defeated by Gardina after redistricting put two incumbents in the same district, said future elected officials shouldn't receive any pension.
"To me it's a part-time position," said Skinner, a retired state housing worker. "You're not forced to be a council member."
McIntyre, another four-term member and the council's only Republican, said the pension isn't a factor for him. At 79, he's "running hard" for a fifth term, he said.