Halt 'banked' pension checks, lump-sum payouts

Community Times

Two government personnel disputes are making headlines these days.

One involves area politicians — County Executive Kevin Kamenetz of Pikesville and Councilwoman Vicki Almond of Reisterstown.

The other involves two of Gov. Larry Hogan's officials, Planning Secretary Wendi Peters and Health Secretary Dennis Schrader.

In each case, action is needed to iron out situations that threaten established systems for dealing with personnel matters.

Baltimore County's conundrum involves a 2010 pension reform that allows employees who retire from a county job to be rehired in another position.

Ordinarily, rehiring a former employee is no big deal — except when that employee has already started receiving county pension checks.

To overcome that barrier — and to allow the county to rehire workers with valuable expertise — an exception was added to the pension law that may have made sense at the time but in practice amounts to an unacceptable windfall for those individuals.

The 2010 plan has been repeatedly mischaracterized as "double dipping." That's not true. Rehired county employees are simply gaining additional pension credits in their new county jobs for time worked — the same as any county employee.

As long as the rehired worker doesn't simultaneously receive pension payouts, this shouldn't be a big deal. If you work for the county, even for a second time, you ought to be able to accrue pension benefits for added years of service.

But there's a dangerous kicker: Instead of seeing their pension checks suspended for the duration of their second round of government service, rehired employees get their pension checks "banked." When they retire a second time, they receive a one-time payout.

In Kamenetz's case, he served 16 years on the County Council, where he is entitled to an annual pension of $48,000. Once he steps down after eight years as county executive, he receives a second pension of $70,000 a year for his work as the jurisdiction's top elected official.

That's not "double dipping." Those are separate pension programs, and Kamenetz is being given pensions for his work serving county citizens over those 24 years.

Here's what's not fair: His council pension checks weren't suspended. Instead, they've been accumulating in a separate account. After his term as county executive ends, Kamenetz receives $384,000 — the pension checks that were "banked" for him over the past eight years.

This is flat-out wrong. While Kamenetz serves as county executive, he should not be receiving a County Council pension check. No "banking" allowed, either. The same holds for 32 other once-retired county employees now working in new jobs for the county.

County workers who retire, then decide to resume their government service in another capacity, must make a decision: Go back to work for the county and give up your pension checks during that period, or stay retired.

Let's do away with "banked" pension checks and lump-sum payouts. That arrangement is, indeed, double-dipping.

Almond's bill in the council gets rid of this objectionable provision. But the council must take care not to totally exclude rehiring of highly skilled county retirees for different government jobs.

There are other ways to address that issue without resorting to pension windfalls.

On the state level, Hogan's cabinet secretaries have sued to collect their paychecks — even though they haven't been confirmed by the state Senate, as required under the constitution.

This dispute rightly belongs in the courts. Both the governor and legislature are staking out important constitutional positions, with the legislature seemingly on firmer ground. It's now up to the state's top judges to sort out that constitutional quagmire.

Barry Rascovar's blog is politicalmaryland.com. He can be contacted at brascovar@hotmail.com.

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