Public safety employees hired after 2007 aren't eligible for the program. That year the county ended the public safety DROP, but started one for general employees as part of pension reform efforts.

That program is designed differently than the public safety DROP, said Don Mohler, chief of staff to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. It is meant to save on retiree health care costs by keeping employees on the payroll until they are closer to eligibility for Medicare coverage.

DROP programs have been questioned elsewhere, said Keith Brainard, research director at the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.

In some places, people have questioned programs that let elected officials receive DROP payments, for instance.

"The size of some DROPs can create an appearance of an overly generous benefit," Brainard said. "That may or may not be a valid criticism. A DROP in and of itself is not an inappropriate benefit. … It depends on the circumstances."

Baltimore City's public safety DROP program started in 1996. In 2008, the benefit structure was reduced, Fugate said.

Last year, the city decided to phase out the program, and that decision is now part of a federal lawsuit filed by public safety unions, said Fugate.

Gary McLhinney, former president of the Baltimore police union, said there was good reason for starting the city's plan, which was Maryland's first.

"You can't look at DROP with today's magnifying glass," said McLhinney, who helped write the city's program. "You really have to look at what was happening in 1995 and 1996, and why we needed a DROP program. … And that's because we were having a mass exodus of police officers leaving the city."

McLhinney said half-million-dollar checks are not reflective of what most union members receive under DROP programs.

"Most rank-and-file people are not making that money," he said, "and in law enforcement, we pay people more money based on their responsibilities and rank."

In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael A. Nutter tried to eliminate the benefit this year. The City Council overrode Nutter's veto of a bill that kept the program but was meant to make it less costly. Philadelphia's program allows elected officials to enroll, which sparked public outrage.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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