Two candidates who have filed to run for Baltimore County Council next year joined a chorus of people Wednesday calling for reforms to the County Council pension system that allows a member elected to five four-year terms to retire at full pay.
Most were critical of the system that allows County Councilman Vincent Gardina to retire from the part-time council job next year with a pension equal to his $54,000 salary, though a few defended it.
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. Also, County Council candidate Charles Beeler, 61, said he served on the county police force from August 1967, when he became a cadet, until he officially retired in 2005, or 38 years, but department officials credit him with a 34-year sworn career, not counting the cadet time and two years in the 1970s when he was on sick leave. The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.
"This is the kind of stuff that's causing all the mistrust in government," said Ed Jordan, 80, of Madonna, who said he is opposed to pensions for public officials and favors term limits for elected officials.
"I think officials should have compensation for their service, but not to this extreme, especially the way the economy is now," said Darlene Mullen, 51, a teacher from Randallstown
But Rick Ray of Cockeysville said he doesn't blame the council members or fault Gardina, who said he is stepping down from the council next year.
"He is playing under the rules and I don't blame him, but I would like to see the rules changed now," Ray said.
Arnold Jablon, a former senior county official now in private legal practice, also defended Gardina.
"Anyone who can get elected for five straight terms and stay sane deserves whatever he can get," Jablon said.
County Executive Jim Smith, who served seven years on the council from 1978 to 1985 before becoming a judge and then a two-term county executive, refused comment Wednesday, as did Catonsville Democrat Stephen G. "Sam" Moxley, a four-term councilman. The other six council members did not return a reporter's calls Wednesday.
But council candidates Catonsville Republican Steve Whisler, 41, and Dundalk Democrat Charles "Buzz" Beeler, 61, a nearly four-decade county police veteran who enjoys a hefty pension himself, said they want reforms to a system they feel is overly generous.
"I'm a 20-year naval officer. I've been through a lot and I get a 50-percent pension, said Whisler, commenting on news that Gardina, a Towson Democrat, can step down at age 54 with a pension equal to his full salary because he has served five terms. Four other members on the seven-member council are completing their fourth term.
Two four-term members, council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder and Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, both Democrats, are expected to run for county executive next year. If one wins, he, like council members, would be eligible for a separate pension equal to 20 percent of the $150,000 executive pay for each term served. Executives, however, are limited to two terms.
Whisler said he would want to study pension levels for various county workers before proposing a specific change, but said he doesn't feel the part-time job merits a 20 percent benefit per term.
"I will submit legislation to reform the retirement pension plan," he said. "The joy of being a politician is serving the neighborhood and the county. It's supposed to be a sense of public service, and not an entitlement."
County Council members have argued that they did not conceive or increase the pension system, which began in 1956 with home rule charter government when salaries were $3,000 a year.
They also contribute 13.85 percent of their $54,000 a year pay to the pension system ($60,000 for chairman), compared with a range of 4.4 percent to 8.4 percent contributed by general county employees hired before July 1, 2007. Those hired after that date contribute 6 percent, though public safety workers and department heads pitch in up to 9 percent.
Elected state officials and Baltimore City Council members pay 5 percent toward their more modest pensions. State legislators get 60 percent after 20 years and City Council members get half their pay after two decades.
Beeler, who said he was forced to retire after 39 years, said his pension is $56,000 a year -87 percent of his old salary - but he, too, advocates reforms.
"I want to go in and trim the pork," he said, suggesting perhaps a 401K contribution plan instead of the older, more expensive defined-benefit pension. "Pensions need to be studied and reined in a little bit," he said.