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Commissioners improve disability benefits for Sheriff’s Office

Those who retire from the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office due to injuries sustained in the line of duty, as well as their families, will be better “taken care of” after changes to police pension disability benefits were approved.

The Carroll County Board of Commissioners voted Thursday for the enhancements, which increase an existing disability benefit by 50% and establish a new benefit for non-catastrophic line of duty disabilities.

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“In today’s world, we’re relying more and more for good police officers to be out there to protect our citizens,” Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, said. “I think we have to recruit good people to come in. They have to know that they can react, that their family’s going to be taken care of ... if something happens. They don’t have time to think through those things and they have to feel safe.”

Under the new pension plan, if a county law enforcement officer or correctional officer is injured in the line of duty and suffers a catastrophic disability, they would receive 45% of their Sheriff’s Office salary annually, according to a county briefing paper. This is an increase from 30%.

The plan also establishes a new benefit for non-catastrophic line-of-duty disabilities at 35% for law and correctional officers. The county’s current pension plan does not differentiate between catastrophic and non-catastrophic line-of-duty disabilities.

The plan was approved in three parts — to eliminate the earned income offset, to allow for qualifying officers to benefit from future enhancements, and the plan overall — each of which was voted upon separately.

Two of the commissioners’ votes were unanimous while the vote on the grandfathering provision, passed 3-1-1. Weaver, Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, and Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, voted in favor. Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, voted against, and Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, abstained.

The new pension plan differentiates between catastrophic and non-catastrophic injuries, which is the difference between not being able to work at all and not being able to work as a law enforcement or correctional officer. The plan also adds benefits for law enforcement and correctional officers they did not have before and improves upon existing benefits for law enforcement officers.

The change applies to the nearly 250 law enforcement and corrections officers employed by the Sheriff’s Office, as well as future officers. The plan, which will become effective once amendments have been written into it by the county pension attorney and signed by the commissioners, is not retroactive and thus does not affect officers who have already retired on disability.

The commissioners unanimously agreed on one part of the new plan, to eliminate the earned income offset. The offset reduces the amount of pension a former employee receives from Carroll County after they start a new job with a salary above a certain amount.

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County staff had proposed increasing the offset from $10,000 to $30,000. Sheriff Jim DeWees and Sgt. Brandon Holland spoke against the offset at a public hearing Jan. 23, asking the commissioners to remove it from the pension plan entirely.

“It would cut a person in half,” Holland told the commissioners. “It’s not going to save the county pension system that much money having an offset, so just get rid of it.”

Holland is president of the local Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 20 and has been advocating for improved benefits for years.

The offset was introduced to the plan in 2009, according to Kim Frock, the county’s human resources director.

“The rationale behind it is to prevent potential abuse of the system," said Werner Mueller, the county’s retirement plans manager.

Wantz suggested the offset is a “tad bit disrespectful,” and that it might be something to consider if they had a larger police department. Rothstein said he believed the potential for abuse by any Sheriff’s Office employees would be minimal.

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Commissioners split over grandfathering provision

Once the commissioners agreed on the offset, they began a debate on “grandfathering” in officers who retire on disability.

Wantz was all for including retired employees in future enhancements made to the pension plan.

For example, if 10 years from now, new commissioners wanted to increase the benefits for officers who retire due to in-line-of-duty injuries, Wantz would want that increase to be applied to not only the officers who retire after that change is made, but to the officers who have previously retired.

DeWees also requested this be included in the amendment to the plan.

Frazier disagreed with Wantz, saying his teacher retirement benefits aren’t like that.

Rothstein said the county should do more for law enforcement.

“Men and women in red and blue I believe we should be doing the best we can to take care of [them],” Rothstein said. "We’re talking small numbers. And it’s not going to break the bank. ... I want to ensure they know we have their back. ... It’s a big statement with a very small fiscal responsibility associated with it.”

Frazier asked whether other counties offer the grandfathering option. Frock said she did not know. Frazier said he’d be more inclined to offer it if others did the same.

Three commissioners carried the vote to make it so officers who retire on disability will benefit from any future enhancements to the police pension plan.

Before voting, Wantz asked Frock whether a certain officer who is currently disabled from an in-line-of-duty injury and working for the department in a restricted capacity would be able to benefit from the improvements to the pension plan. She said yes, the plan would apply to any officer who is currently employed.

After the meeting, Wantz said he was referring to Cpl. Brant Webb, who was struck by a car on Md. 26 in 2016.

Bouchat later said he abstained on the grandfathering provision vote because he thought Frazier made a good point about teacher pension.

“Out of respect for him and other teachers, I abstained,” Bouchat wrote in a message.

After the vote on the grandfathering provision, the board unanimously approved the new police pension plan with the amendments voted upon earlier in the meeting.

Outside the meeting, Holland said he was “very happy” with the decision to approve the plan with the changes he and DeWees recommended.

“I’m very excited that they went through with this,” Holland said.

He said the plan is still not where it needs to be, but it is a good start.

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