The Baltimore County Council approved Tuesday night the weaker of two pension reform bills, adopting a measure that is unlikely to satisfy critics of the current system, which greatly exceeds benefits to most working families.
The panel voted 6-1 to cap pensions of elected officials at 60 percent of the annual salary, which is currently $54,000 for council members. The law, drafted by Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, takes effect Feb. 1. It applies to anyone who joins the council after that date, but not to current members.
"This is the right thing to do," Kamenetz said. "It fixes the problem, and now it's time to move on. It's fair and not punitive."
A broader bill, sponsored by Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, was tabled by a vote of 5-2. It included the same 60 percent cap, but would have delayed benefits until a retiree who had served four or more terms reached age 55. Those with fewer years of service would have had to wait until age 60.
Bartenfelder proposed numerous amendments that would have incorporated many of the measures of his bill into Kamenetz' legislation. Each of his amendments came with a fiscal note that detailed the millions of dollars that it would save the county. But after no discussion and with no members willing to second his motions, all of the amendments failed.
"I am willing to take the bite, but there is no support on the council because it affects them," Bartenfelder said. Asked if he would bring another reform bill back, he said, "I will try again after I am county executive."
Both Kamenetz and Bartenfelder are expected to run for the county executive job this year and will leave the council after serving four terms. If one should win, he would also qualify for the county executive's pension on top of the retirement benefits from serving on the County Council. The bills came, in part, as a reaction to strong criticism of a policy that allows a council member to retire at full pay after five terms in office. Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, who is retiring after 20 years in office, is the first to take advantage of the pension policy, which was established in 1971 when annual salaries were about $3,000. Baltimore County's pension plan is far more generous than those offered by other local governments, or the state.
Residents, who have expressed dissatisfaction with both bills at earlier meetings, have vowed to continue their push for deeper reforms, including a switch to a defined contribution, such as a 401(k).
"Especially in difficult economic times, we expected elected officials to set the example and make real sacrifices," said Joe Seehusen, co-chairman of the county chapter of Americans for Prosperity, an activist group. "Where is the leadership?"
"This council blew an opportunity to make constructive substantial changes in the pension system," Bartenfelder said.