Council restores 3 percent wage cuts, offers new retirement incentive to workers


At a time when the county plans to cut the jobs of 88 workers, the County Council Tuesday improved the lot of those who will keep their jobs -- restoring wage cuts imposed last November and beefing up the employee retirement package.

The retirement incentive package is designed to save $2.5 million by sweetening pension benefits for the 400 county workers eligible to retire.

Donald Tynes Sr., county personnel director, said his office has projected 100 people will accept the package and that 50 of them will have to be replaced. Any police officers, firefighters, detention center guards or sheriff's deputies who take it will be replaced, he said.

"The intent is not to jeopardize public safety in any way," he said.

The program calls for increasing the pension package by one additional month of benefit credit for each year of service. That means a 60-year-old employee with 30 years of service earning $45,000 would receive an annual pension of $29,250, rather than the current $27,000, Tynes said.

Employees could choose whether they want the money in a lump sum, in the form of an annuity that would be paid annually until age 62, or as a bonus added to their regular pension checks for the rest of their lives.

So that same 60-year-old worker would be able to take the $2,250 annual bonus in a one-time payment of $24,750 or take an annuity of $13,500 for two years until reaching the age of 62.

The plan, approved unanimously by the council after brief discussion, would affect all employees at least 50 years old and with 20 years of service. Fire and police department employees would need 20 years of service only.

As part of the plan, departments may rehire key employees on a contractual basis at two-thirds of their former salary and without fringe benefits, but only for up to two years.

There is a 90-day window, so if employees don't decide to retire by Aug. 14, they will not be eligible, Tynes said.

Council also voted unanimously to restore the 3 percent wage cuts imposed last November in the face of state budget cuts. Restoring the cut will cost the county $1.3 million, Tynes said.

Tynes said that the money restores pay to levels negotiated in contracts prior to November. The increases will show up in the pay checks of the county's 4,000 employees June 5.

Council members spent most of a 2 1/2 hour session discussing County Executive Robert R. Neall's request to set up a $10 million rainy day fund.

State Sen. Jack Cade, a Neall ally and a member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said the General Assembly enacted legislation permitting such funds to help counties stem financial problems in the face of future state aid cuts. He told the council that he and other state fiscal experts expect such cuts.

"If I were you all, I'd buckle my shorts pretty tight," he told the council.

He gave council members copies of a May 11 letter to legislative leaders from Fiscal Services Director William S. Ratchford II, who advises the legislature on fiscal matters and serves as a sort of watchdog on the governor's office.

Ratchford's letter included a reminder that the state faces the specter of future revenue shortfalls.

"Income tax collections for April were approximately $40 million below the April estimate," the letter noted. "No one in the Treasury Building seems very concerned, but we still believe the estimates for the income tax in both fiscal 1992 and fiscal 1993 are overstated."

But council members, who have been deluged with requests to save county jobs and various programs, said they had difficulty setting aside $10 million in the same budget that will slash the jobs of 38 workers and eliminate another 50 workers from the county payroll by transferring duties to private operations.

"People are saying, 'You're asking me to accept that you're cutting my job, yet you want to put $10 million away. You're making all these cuts [in programs] yet you want to put $10 million away.' " said Councilman Edward Middlebrooks. "The question becomes, in these economic times, how do we justify it."

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