Harford County government and the county's volunteer fire and EMS companies are discussing proposed changes to a county-funded retirement program for the volunteer firemen, including lowering age of eligibility to receive benefits.

The proposals, including dropping the minimum age to collect pension benefits from age 55 to age 50, could add nearly $1 million a year to the $2 million annually that the county contributes to the retirement fund, people with knowledge of the discussions say.

Harford County Executive David Craig held a preliminary meeting July 14 with leaders of the Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Association. He planned a follow up meeting with the association leadership, as well as Emergency Services Director Russell Strickland and members of the county's Public Safety Commission.

Craig, who leaves off in December after serving as county executive since mid-2005, does not expect a resolution of the retirement issue while he is in office.

"We're down to the last four months in office, and it's going to require legislation," Craig said Thursday.

The Harford County Council must approve changes to the Length of Service Award Program, or LOSAP, a county-funded retirement program for volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel that has been on the books nearly four decades.

"It may be one of those situations where we make a recommendation and pass it on to the next administration," Craig said.

Ten changes requested

Leaders of the Fire & EMS Association have a list of 10 desired changes to LOSAP. In addition to lowering the age to begin receiving the pension for people who have been serving for 25 years from age 55 to age 50, they also want to lower the retirement age from 70 to 60 for people who have 10 to 24 years of service, according to a copy provided by the association.

In November 2007, the county council approved lowering the retirement age from 60 to 55 for those with 25 years of service.

Association leaders also want to increase spousal benefits from 50 percent to 75 percent, and provide 100 percent of benefits to a spouse of a fire company member who dies in the line of duty, as well as removing cutoff for accruing points toward retirement at 50 years of service.

They also want to establish a minimum LOSAP enrollment age of 16.

"The association is pleased we've made it this far with our points, and we're looking forward to hearing what Mr. Craig has to say with his review of our proposal," association spokesman Rich Gardiner said Thursday.

An actuarial study conducted by Bolton Partners Inc. of Baltimore in May indicated the county would have to increase its annual LOSAP contribution by $980,407 to accommodate all proposed changes, according to a copy of the study provided by the Harford County Department of the Treasury.

The county contributes $1.9 million a year to the retirement plan, according to the study, and it would have to contribute $2.8 million a year to cover all 10 proposed changes.

"Based on the data they had in their files on LOSAP, they applied the requested changes to the database to determine the cost," Treasurer Kathryn Hewitt said of the actuaries.

Lowering the retirement age alone would cost an extra $765,486 a year, according to the study.

'Two-point sell'

Gardiner called the LOSAP program "a two-point sell; it's recruitment and retention."

He said the fire and EMS service can retain more members with a program with a lower retirement age and improved spousal benefits, and recruit new members with "this great pension opportunity."