Baltimore County councilwoman wants to end enhanced pension benefits

A Baltimore County councilwoman is seeking to repeal a local law that allows some county officials to collect enhanced pension benefits — a move that would eliminate a “double-dipping” provision for the current county executive and some former members of the County Council.

Councilwoman Vicki Almond said Tuesday she will introduce legislation that would reverse a 2010 law that opened the door for a handful of former council members — including County Executive Kevin Kamenetz — to earn two pensions and a lump-sum payout when they leave county government.

“Our Baltimore County employees aren’t subject to these kinds of perks, so why should anyone else be, quite frankly?” said Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat. “That’s how I see it.”

Other critics have called the practice, which the law allows, “double-dipping.”

Under the law approved in 2010, some county officials who left their positions, then “returned to service” in a different role, can ask to participate in the program. It’s up to the county administrative officer to approve the request.

While the official works in a second county job, the pension from the first job is put aside in an account and the official receives a regular county salary while also earning credits toward a second pension.

When the official retires for good, he or she receives checks from two pensions — plus a lump-sum payout of the benefits they didn’t take while earning their second salary.

The program was created in 2010 when the County Council added language to a bill dealing with pensions.

Officials eligible for the pension deal include four of the council members who voted for it in 2010: Kamenetz, who was elected county executive later that year; Sam Moxley, now a legislative aide to Kamenetz; Vince Gardina, now the county’s top environmental official; and Johnny Olszewski Sr., who worked for the county recreation department after leaving the council.

The policy could apply to other workers, but neither Almond’s office nor the Kamenetz administration could immediately say who else would be eligible to participate.

Almond’s office has estimated that once Kamenetz finishes his second term as county executive next year, he will be eligible for a $48,000 annual pension from his 16 years on the County Council, a $70,000 annual pension from his eight years as county executive, and a lump-sum payout of at least $384,000 that represents his “banked” council pension while he was executive.

Through a spokeswoman, Kamenetz, Gardina and Moxley declined to comment.

Olszewski said he has “no objections” to changing the policy. Olszewski did not run for re-election in 2014 and spent about a year working for the county. He said he earned little in the way of salary and benefits from his second stint with the county.

He said when he voted on the policy in 2010, he didn’t really consider that council members would end up as administration employees. “I didn’t think that after I left the council I would come back,” he said.

After it was approved, county officials defended the policy, arguing it would not have a negative effect on the budget.

But after the 2010 election, some newly elected council members expressed concern about the pensions. Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, said the provision sounded “like double-dipping.” Unions for county workers criticized it as well. No action was taken to change the system.

“As a group, we talked about it and didn’t quite understand the extent of it,” said Almond, who was among new members elected to the council in 2010, after the legislation had been passed.

Baltimore County’s pension rules affecting elected officials, in particular, who later take other county jobs are different from other jurisdictions. In Howard County, for example, a spokesman said that if an official had earned a council pension, working in a subsequent county job would simply add more years into the formula for calculating a final benefit.

In Baltimore City, elected officials became eligible to earn pensions only last year. If a council member were to later take a job with the city, any council pension would be frozen during their employment, a spokesperson said. Then the official would be eligible to earn another pension based on the rules in place for the new job.

Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican also elected in 2010, said Tuesday he would review Almond’s bill. The other council members did not respond to requests for comment.

Almond, who is considering a run for county executive, said sponsoring a bill to change the pensions fits with her goals to promote transparency and fairness in government.

In recent months, the county has been under scrutiny for policies that offered severance pay to top officials when they leave the government, whether it’s due to retirement, resignation or dismissal. Kamenetz and the County Council ended those policies last week amid criticism from some county residents.

Almond said reforming pensions is in line with reforming severance policies.

She also said she’s troubled by the fact that it’s up to the county administrative officer to decide which eligible employees can participate in the double pension program.

“I think we have to stop with the ‘behind closed doors,’ ” she said.

She acknowledged there could be legal questions about whether the council can change the rules for pensions retroactively.

“I’m sure it will go under review by the law department,” Almond said. “I feel very strongly that this is the way it should pass.”

Almond said she will introduce the bill at Monday’s council meeting. A hearing and vote would be held in the fall.

pwood@baltsun.com

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