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34 Baltimore County officers to retire today to take pension enhancement


Say goodbye to police officers such as Lewis S. Harvey, 50. He patrolled southwestern Baltimore County's Wilkens precinct for the past 26 years and knows it like the back of his hand.

Bid adieu to 33-year Officer Henry E. Hess, who supervised private towing companies called in emergencies and school crossing guards. Likewise farewell to 31-year veteran William L. Turner, the first black lieutenant on the county force -- whose departure leaves just two African-Americans above the rank of sergeant on the force.

They are a few of the 34 county police officers retiring today, in a blow for a police department still rebuilding from losses during the recent recession.

Ironically, a factor in the mass retirement is a pension enhancement granted by the Ruppersberger administration that was intended to encourage veteran officers to stay on the force longer.

And the county is allowing officers retiring one day before the new contract takes effect to get the extra pension benefit, which this year increased retirement's lure.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III and police officials said the loss of so many experienced officers on one day is a blow, but one for which they are prepared.

"I want to make sure we get cops out on the street," the county executive said yesterday, repeating one of his campaign themes. He said he met with Chief Mike Gambrill this week and urged him to run two police recruit classes at once, day and night, if necessary.

Col. Jerry L. Blevins said the county graduated 47 police recruits two weeks ago, and has a class of 60 due to graduate Dec. 23. Still another class of as many as 70 recruits is scheduled to begin Oct. 28.

"We're in pretty good shape," he said, noting that in February, 1992, the county lost 91 officers and 122 positions in early retirements due to the recession.

A combination of two obscure but important financial considerations helped encourage today's police retirements:

* By retiring on June 30, the final day of the fiscal year, they become eligible under county law for a cost-of-living increase in their pensions on July 1 of the next year. Retiring one day later would delay the increase for an additional year.

* Under terms of the new labor agreement negotiated with the Ruppersberger administration this spring, officers with at least 20 years on the force retiring June 30 will be eligible for higher pensions under a formula taking effect the next day.

In addition to receiving an annual pension equal to half of the final year's salary, the officers will receive 2 percent more for each year they worked in excess of 20, instead of the old rate of 1 percent more per year -- the enhancement that was intended to encourage longer tenure.

An officer with 25 years on the force, for example, would be eligible to receive 60 percent of the final year's salary as a pension, instead of 55 percent. For a 25-year patrolman, that would mean an extra $2,034 a year -- in addition to the cost-of-living boost that would come July 1, 1996.

Police and firefighters received the added benefit in trade for giving up some eligibility for accident-disability pensions, which pay 67 percent of salary for life, regardless of age at retirement. Technically, the change takes effect July 1.

But only police officers, whose union was the first and most vigorous to back Mr. Ruppersberger's election campaign last year, are eligible for the 2 percent benefit even if they retire June 30 to take advantage of the earlier cost-of-living increase.

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