Baltimore County

Harford fire officials seek lower retirement age

Harford County fire and EMS officials are seeking county approval to lower the retirement age for members of volunteer fire and ambulance companies from 55 to 50 years old.

"This is the primary retention tool for volunteer firefighters," Tony Bennett, chairman of the county's Public Safety Commission, said of the Length of Service Award Program, or LOSAP, after Thursday's meeting of the Public Safety Commission at Susquehanna Hose Company House 4 in Havre de Grace.

Commission members agreed during the meeting to support a motion by Walter Kerr, also a member of the Level Volunteer Fire Company, to have county Emergency Services Director Russell Strickland "expedite" the delivery of 10 recommended changes to LOSAP, including lowering the retirement age, to county officials.

Strickland is also a member of the Public Safety Commission. He said Harford County Executive David Craig is "very interested" in changes to LOSAP.

"The No. 1 question is, what's the fiscal impact... we've got to get that on the table," he said.

Kerr said expediting the delivery would allow county treasury officials to make a quick determination of the cost of the proposed changes to LOSAP, and then determine which changes would be feasible, in time for the beginning of the next annual LOSAP cycle, which is Oct. 1.

"To change it, to be fair to everyone, you would need to change it right at the beginning of the cycle... It needs to be discussed now, otherwise you have to push it back a whole other year," Kerr told his fellow commission members.

The proposed LOSAP changes were approved by the members of the Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Association in December 2013, and made based on the studies by members of the association's LOSAP committee.

"Our effort was to go forward with those recommendations and have as many of them implemented as possible," Bill Dousa, vice president of the association, said. "We weren't asking necessarily that we get all of them, but these are the things that we would like to have."

Some of the recommendations include lowering the age at which company members who have served for 25 years would be eligible for LOSAP benefits from 55 to 50 years, removing the cap that prevents members who have served for more than 50 years from collecting benefits, increasing spousal benefits from 50 percent of a member's payment to 75 percent and establishing a minimum LOSAP enrollment age of 16 years.

Association members also recommended establishing a permanent funding source for retirement benefits.

"That's why the dedicated funding is an important issue for things such as this," Bennett said.

He reiterated statements he made during the previous commission meeting regarding establishing a dedicated funding source for the county's volunteer fire and EMS companies, rather than money that is available in the county general fund and could be taken away if the county gets into serious financial trouble.

"There is a lot of stress from what we're hearing on the county from a financial standpoint, no matter whether it's the fire service or libraries," he said.

The Harford County Council would have to approve any changes to the LOSAP; the council approved a bill lowering the retirement age from 60 years to 55 in November 2007.

The county has been administering LOSAP for fire company members since 1975, and the Treasury Department would need to conduct an "actuarial study" to determine the cost of changes to the program, according to Sherrie Johnson, spokeswoman for the county government.

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