Political self-interest is trumping monetary self-interest in Baltimore County, where the two county councilmen who are plotting runs for county executive this year have introduced dueling versions of legislation to address the voter outrage over the prospect that one of their members, Vincent J. Gardina, is set to retire with a pension equal to 100 percent of his $54,000-a-year salary for the rest of his life.
Both the first piece of legislation, offered by Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, and the second, introduced by Councilman Joe Bartenfelder, were up for discussion at the council's work session yesterday, and both would mark an improvement over the current system. But public outrage over elected officials' pensions reached the boiling point last week, when Mayor Sheila Dixon cut a deal that will allow her to keep her $83,000-a-year pension, notwithstanding her plea deal on embezzlement and perjury charges, and even the reforms Messrs. Kamenetz and Bartenfelder are proposing likely don't go far enough to satisfy voters.
Mr. Kamenetz's bill is the simpler of the two. It would limit the maximum benefit a council member could attain to 60 percent of his final salary, but it would not apply to anyone already in the system.
Mr. Bartenfelder's is a bit more complicated. In addition to a 60 percent cap, it would prevent council members who have served four or more terms from receiving full benefits until they reach the age of 55 and those who have served fewer than four terms from receiving full benefits until they turn 60. (Retirees could start collecting benefits earlier but at a penalty.) Mr. Bartenfelder's bill limits the possible pension of anyone who serves both on the council and as county executive to no more than 60 percent of the executive's salary (presently, the two pensions can be stacked on top of one another), and Mr. Bartenfelder's bill would apply to current members of the council - sort of.
The catch with Mr. Bartenfelder's bill is this: It would "apply prospectively to anyone who takes the oath of office as a council member or county executive on or after Dec. 6, 2010." That means the 80 percent pension benefit Mr. Bartenfelder has built up would not be touched, though he would have to wait two years to collect full benefits. The same would go for Mr. Kamenetz and councilmen Stephen G. Samuel Moxley and T. Bryan McIntire, who are both completing their fourth terms, and Mr. Gardina, who is completing his fifth. (All but Mr. McIntire are younger than 55 and would have to wait to collect full benefits.)
The other two members of the council, John A. Olszewski Sr. and Kenneth N. Oliver, are completing their third and second terms, respectively, so if they are re-elected, they would be unable to amass pensions of more than 60 percent, but they wouldn't lose anything they already have, either. They would also get to stop contributing to the retirement system if they reach the maximum potential pension.
Part of the political problem the councilmen face in trying to rein in their runaway benefits is that pensions are protected by federal law, and it is extremely difficult to change them after the fact. Any law that does so could face a federal court challenge. The time to handle this would have been years ago, before the current members all reached such large pensions. To his credit, Mr. Bartenfelder did suggest such reform more than a decade ago, but it went nowhere, and he didn't try again until it became a political necessity this year.
But it seems doubtful, even if they could hold themselves to a maximum benefit of 60 percent, that the reform would satisfy the voters. At current council salaries, that still means that one could earn a pension of $32,400 a year for life from just 12 years of part-time work. Try to find that deal in the private sector. Both Mr. Kamenetz and Mr. Bartenfelder are trying to pattern their proposals off the pension benefit for state legislators, but in a world where defined benefit plans have long ago given way to defined contribution plans, that's not a model that most county taxpayers can identify with. Some political bodies, notably the Howard County Council, have ditched pensions in favor of a 401(k) plan. If Baltimore County councilmen want to convince voters they're serious about addressing the issue, that's the kind of reform they should pursue.
But the worst-case scenario is that Mr. Kamenetz and Mr. Bartenfelder, seeking to make a campaign issue of pension reform, attack each other's bills and cause the defeat of both. If either one wants to be able to look voters in the eye this fall, they need to combine forces and make sure something passes.
The more interesting news in this is that Kevin Kamenetz and Joe Bartenfelder haven't worked out an agreement on the executive race.
Kamenetz's plan on the pension (like his bid for exec) just makes better sense. What is Joe playing for?
I'm not against pensions, but this business of city, county, state and federal employees receiving sometimes three pensions because of lax loopholes in the system is ridiculous.
We in the private sector have been blindsided by what's left of our 401ks and have to look out for our own futures while these government employees live lavish lifestyles.
Bernard F. McKernan