Calling the Baltimore County Council's efforts to reform its own pensions "very anemic," Republican candidates for county offices pledged Monday to rein in elected officials' benefits if voters elect enough of them to office Nov. 2.
Public anger about county pension benefits erupted last year when Councilman Vincent J. Gardina announced he would retire in 2010, after 20 years in the council, with a pension equal to 100 percent of his $54,000 annual council salary. The pension policy was established in 1971, when council salaries were about $3,000 a year.
Steve Bailey, the GOP candidate for Baltimore county state's attorney, said, "These benefits are far too generous for being an elected official in the public sector."
"We need to move elected officials into a contribution plan, like a 401(k), like the majority of our constituents would receive," Bailey said. "The private sector has moved away from these [defined-benefit pension] plans because they are unsustainable."
Reform efforts last January by the Democratic-majority council capped pensions for county elected officials at 60 percent of their salaries. But the measure exempted current elected officials. The council also rejected efforts to delay payments until age 55 or 60, depending on years of service on the council.
Peter Clerkin, campaign spokesman for County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, the Democratic candidate for county executive, said the pension problem was inherited by the current council, and Kamenetz voted for last winter's reforms, which cut the maximum benefit "almost in half."
"If a future council believes there is a fiscal impact caused by these eight employees, out of 8,500 general government employees who participate in the pension plan, [Kamenetz] will certainly consider future reforms," Clerkin said
All five GOP candidates for the County Council signed the pledge, as did GOP candidates for other offices.
Bailey used former county councilman and county executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger as an example of excessive public compensation. When he left county office after 16 years in local elected office to take a seat in Congress, Bailey said, Ruppersberger took with him lifetime county pension benefits totaling nearly $90,000 a year, while earning a $174,000 congressional salary.
Ruppersberger's spokeswoman, Heather Molino, said the congressman's county pension is based on 27 years of county employment, first as a law clerk and then as an assistant state's attorney before he won elected office. It totaled $88,607 in 2009.
"He did not create the system," she said. Ruppersberger contributed to the system for 27 years and is in favor of county pension reform, she said.
Bailey said GOP candidates would not advocate taking away pension benefits elected officials have already earned by contract. But they would seek legislation to move any future benefits to 401(k)-like contribution plans.
There is risk to 401(k) plans, which can be subject to painful stock market gyrations, he said. But "that's a pain I don't think elected officials should be exempted from."