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Gary's pension reform blitz


A year ago, Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary promised to make pension reform a central goal of his administration. Last week, he delivered. His most ballyhooed proposal -- taking away retirement benefits from high-ranking officials, including those already retired, who profited from a too-generous 1989 pension plan for elected leaders and appointees -- overshadows other plans that are equally important to taxpayers and the county's 3,500 workers: Folding five existing employee retirement plans into one pension system overseen by a board of trustees, a move that could mean elimination of the 20-years-and-out clause for police. Getting rid of the 35-hour work week. Reviewing cost-of-living increases.

These are major changes which, as a whole, make sense. They reflect the executive's willingness to manage the county responsibly. The Gary administration estimates that pension costs are growing at twice the rate of other county spending. His proposals are an effort to pre-empt any collapse of the various retirement plans and the subsequent burden on taxpayers to bail them out. His ideas will have to be spelled out in a lot more detail before they reach the County Council, but his general goals -- more efficient investment of assets, more public accountability, standardized benefits that are fair to both employees and taxpayers -- are good ones.

Some of Mr. Gary's specific ideas are problematic. Stopping the practice of allowing police to retire after 20 years, for instance, would be a mistake, not to mention hugely unpopular; the job is too dangerous and the pay too low to justify eliminating this perk.

As for rolling back the benefits for appointed and elected officials, this is more a matter of politics and principle than fiscal prudence. Taxpayers would save $3 million, but the county will spend at least that much fighting lawsuits brought by former officials claiming a breach of contract. And there is no guarantee the county would win in the end. Nonetheless, taxpayers may be willing to lose money on this deal in exchange for the satisfaction of going after government leaders who have been enjoying inordinately rich pensions at their expense.

Taxpayers expect government employees at all levels to get fair pensions -- but commensurate with their own. They are angry that this hasn't always happened in Arundel. They ought to be pleased with Mr. Gary's efforts to change that.

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