Baltimore County Council scales back pension benefit

The Baltimore County Council voted Tuesday to scale back a pension program that has allowed some employees to receive separate pensions and large payouts for having served the county in multiple positions. But the county executive and some other top officials in the program will still receive the enhanced benefits.

Council members voted unanimously to ban the practice in the future, except for employees who have been retired for at least one year who come back to the county for a different job.

The bill will put an end to a practice that benefits County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and two other county employees, whose terms as council members ended one day and who began different county jobs the next day in 2010. The multiple positions entitled them to receive two pension checks and a lump-sum payout when they leave the county for good.

The bill will end up reducing the lump-sum payment received by Kamenetz, environmental director Vincent Gardina and Kamenetz’s lobbyist, Sam Moxley. All three voted for the policy in 2010 when they were on the council.

The lump-sum payout represents the amount of the pension checks that the three have not been receiving while working for the county and receiving paychecks. Once the bill is effective in 45 days, the county will stop setting aside that money for them. If they work for the county beyond those 45 days, they will receive a smaller lump sum than they anticipated.

A fourth top official, Arnold Jablon, director of permits, approvals and inspections, will receive a lump-sum payout but not a pension check when he retires for good. He had been retired from the county for several years before returning to work for Kamenetz, so the bill will not affect him.

A spokeswoman for Kamenetz said he would allow the bill to become law without his signature because it will affect him.

Councilwoman Vicki Almond, the Reisterstown Democrat who sponsored the bill, had wanted to eliminate the so-called return-to-service pension program altogether. But the council’s lawyer warned that it could be illegal to strip employees of benefits they had earned.

“It didn’t turn out quite as I had hoped,” Almond said. But she said she didn't want to put the county at risk of a potentially expensive lawsuit.

The council’s three Republicans — Todd Crandell of Dundalk, Wade Kach of Cockeysville and David Marks of Perry Hall — voted against an amendment that would have eliminated pensions only in the future. They wanted to eliminate it completely. But they ended up voting for the final version of the bill.

Kamenetz, Gardina, Moxley and Jablon have declined to comment on the pension policy. None testified during a public hearing on the bill last week.

Normally, a retired employee who returns to work for the county would have to choose between receiving either a pension check or a paycheck.

Almond said the vote Tuesday ensures that the county government is fair to employees and accountable to taxpayers. That's important, she said, because many lately have expressed little faith in their government.

The initial policy “was put in that benefited just a few people, not Baltimore County employees at all,” she said. “That part was brought to light, and that part was stopped.”

Once Kamenetz finishes his second term as county executive next year, Almond’s office estimated, he will be eligible under the pension policy 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 representing the council pension he banked while he was executive.

In a related move, council members unanimously approved a bill to allow a version of the pension policy to continue for retired county employees who return in part-time public safety or seasonal jobs.

More than 30 retired police officers are working in part-time police or detention center positions, earning both a pension check and a paycheck. They will not receive lump-sum payouts and are not earning second pensions.

The county administration will be required to notify County Council members of retired employees they plan to hire under the provision.

In other business, the council approved a contract with PrimeCare Medical to provide medical care to the approximately 1,200 inmates at the county jail in Towson. The initial contract for three years will cost more than $33 million. Renewal options could extend the contract to nine and a half years and more $115 million.

Officials say the cost of inmate health care is rising for several reasons, including an increased need to provide substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment and treatment for chronic conditions such as diabetes and HIV.

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