Correctional officers employed by Carroll County could soon gain new disability benefits and law enforcement officers could potentially benefit from changes to theirs, but top officials at the sheriff’s office think there is still room for improvement.
The Board of County Commissioners on Thursday held a public hearing on an amendment to the pension plan for law enforcement and correctional officers with the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office. Under the proposal, the plan would differentiate between non-catastrophic and catastrophic disabilities suffered in the line of duty, establish benefits to include correctional officers, and increase benefits for sheriff’s deputies.
A disability is defined as catastrophic if an officer cannot work at all, according to Mary Clare Chesshire, the county’s pension attorney. A non-catastrophic disability means the individual can continue working in another capacity but not as an officer.
Over the past five years, Sheriff Jim DeWees has brought this matter to the commissioners and worked with county staff to improve the county’s benefits for law enforcement. DeWees said the “most pressing issue” for him has been recruiting, hiring and retaining quality employees, which is difficult to do if the benefits offered by Carroll County aren’t in line with what’s available at other law enforcement agencies in the area.
DeWees has also said the officers have their families to think of and they need to know they have adequate benefits in place should they be injured in the line of duty.
“It’s an ordinance that directly affects about 245 of my people and my people alone within county government,” he said to the board.
Sgt. Brandon Holland, who serves as president of the local Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 20, has also been advocating over the years for improved benefits. He said in an interview Tuesday there are two employees the change could affect immediately, including Cpl. Brant Webb.
Webb was seriously injured after he was struck by a car on Md. 26 in 2016. He has continued working for the Sheriff’s Office since his injury, but in analytical support and under restricted hours, according to DeWees.
The sheriff said in an interview that Webb’s crash drew his attention to the need for improved benefits. Holland and DeWees asked the commissioners to allow a currently disabled officer to be able to take advantage of the new terms, if they are approved.
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. County staff are recommending this change from the current standard of 30% for law enforcement officers. Correctional officers currently do not have this benefit at all.
The amendment would also establish 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.
Lastly, the proposal would increase the earned income offset from $10,000 of annual earned income to $30,000. 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.
For example, if a deputy with a line-of-duty disability left the Sheriff’s Office and got a new job with a salary of $40,000, then $10,000 of that new salary would be affected by the offset, which is proposed to be set at $30,000. For every $2 a former deputy earns in excess of $30,000, the pension would be reduced by $1, according to Frock.
The earned income offset would apply to law enforcement and correctional officers who end employment with the Sheriff’s Office due to a line-of-duty disability, the county’s human resources director, Kim Frock, wrote in an email.
Werner Mueller, retirement plans manager for the county, said the increase was based on changes to the minimum wage over the years.
At Thursday’s meeting, DeWees and Holland argued there should be no offset at all. Their colleagues who work for other law enforcement agencies fall under the state Law Enforcement Pension System, which does not have an offset, DeWees said.
“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.”
DeWees asked the commissioners to remove the offset.
“I guess the offset is a somewhat artificial procedure to make sure we don’t abuse the system ... and manufacture an injury,” DeWees said.
With medical technology as advanced as it is, DeWees said it would be difficult for someone to fake an injury so they could collect pension.
“We want this to be adequate. We don’t want it to be lucrative,” he said.
In an interview, Holland said he felt the offset would prohibit former officers from seeking high-paying jobs, or even jobs equivalent to their former Sheriff’s Office salary, for fear that their pension would be reduced. Additionally, Holland said he wasn’t satisfied with the proposed percentages for catastrophic and non-catastrophic disabilities, saying they should be higher.
“I’m not happy with the percentages, but it’s a good start,” Holland said.
Carroll resident John Corona spoke in support of police at the board meeting, telling the commissioners it’s only fair to let the Sheriff’s Office know the government has their backs. As a member of the public, Corona said, he wants to be sure there is nothing that would prevent a deputy from responding and running toward danger.