I would like to commend you for acknowledging in your editorial entitled "Time for a Raise," that Harford County's employees do their jobs well and that "it is reasonable … to include a raise for those on the public payroll."
Where I take issue with your piece is later on when it states: "This doesn't mean there aren't difficult issues ahead when it comes to the compensation packages the county – and most other governments – offer to their employees. Governments are among the last entities that afford to their longtime employees guaranteed pensions and health insurance that require relatively little in the way of employee contribution."
My contention is not that public employers should not address these concerns; it is that the comments completely disregarded the progress that Harford County has made on this front. Under the leadership of Scott Gibson, the Department of Human Resources has enacted many bold reforms to bring these benefits in line with the private sector, and to make them more sustainable in a weak economy. Often these reforms were not popular, but they were necessary and are worth pointing out in light of your comments.
When I first came on board as County Executive, an employee could insure the whole family for $10 per check, which is far more generous than the benefit extended to most working Americans. Human Resources negotiated with our unions to index and increase the employee's share of health care costs. Employees now provide upwards of 20 percent of the total premium's cost.
Like many counties, Harford County's retiree health care program created a huge liability. Prior to my administration, an employee who worked as few as five years for the County could receive subsidized retiree health care for the rest of their life. It did not seem equitable to require taxpayers to subsidize health care expenses for decades, for a retiree who may have only served the County for a very short duration. So with that in mind, we raised the standards to require 20 years of service with the County in order to receive retiree health care.
Recently, we switched our retiree healthcare benefit for new hires from a defined-benefit program to a defined-contribution program. Yet another step towards making these programs more manageable for future budgets.
While most of our employees are enrolled in the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System, over which we enjoy no control, we have made significant progress towards making our Sheriff's Office Pension Plan more sustainable. The Department of Human Resources has worked with the Sheriff's Office Pension Plan Board of Trustees to adopt the following reforms, which will be presented to the County Council for their approval in early 2013:
· Reducing the discount rate. (A move resisted by the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System despite being advocated for by outside experts.)
· Reducing the amortization period for plan changes to 15 years.
· Tying COLA [cost of living adjustment] enhancements to investment performance in addition to the CPI [consumer price index].
· Basing average final compensation on five years instead of three years, to prevent the phenomenon of "spiking."
Harford County has not put these issues off to be dealt with in the time ahead. We are addressing these right now.
David R. Craig
Harford County Executive