Pension oversight group votes against retirement benefits cut Panel will recommend Council reject proposal


A pension oversight group voted unanimously last night to oppose County Executive John G. Gary's plan to cut retroactively the retirement benefits of 44 current and former public officials.

Deborah Turner, chairman of the Pension Oversight Commission, said the panel will recommend that the County Council reject proposed legislation that contains the plan. The commission is an appointed panel of citizens and government employees with advisory powers.

The council could vote on the plan, which Mr. Gary says will save county taxpayers $4 million, on Oct. 16.

The legislation would repeal a portion of a 1989 law enhancing the retirement benefits of elected and appointed officials. It would raise the retirement age from 50 to 60 and cut monthly payments for appointees by 25 percent.

"I have a real problem, as a matter of public policy, with the county trying to abrogate a contract " said Edward J. Donahue III, a citizen member.

Mrs. Turner said the nine-member commission felt the enhanced benefits were "outrageously high." She said, however, that Mr. Gary was "wrong" to punish employees and former employees who had no role in drafting or approving the enhancement six years ago.

She said those employees had made "life decisions" based on the promise of those benefits. "The bill is just unfair," said Dennis Howell, a county police officer and commission member.

Gary administration officials concede that, if approved, the cuts would be challenged in court.

"It's not absolutely without a shadow of a doubt that we can prevail if a suit is brought," county Personnel Director Hilton Wade told the commission last night before the vote. "We would not proceed if we did not believe we had a reasonable chance to prevail."

Commission members noted that they opposed similar legislation introduced last year by Councilwoman Diane Evans, an Arnold Republican, in part because they were told it had little chance of withstanding a court challenge. They said they believed that a legal challenge would be costly.

"I think this will cost the county more than $4 million in the long run," Mr. Donahue said. "Even if most of the provisions are upheld I don't think there are going to be any net savings."

The pension plan for elected and appointed officials became a controversial political issue after it was learned that the enhanced benefits package for those 44 employees would cost taxpayers as much as $14 million.

Mr. Gary has said that that estimate was overblown. After recalculating the cost and making a partial payment, however, the debt stands at $6.9 million.

OC Lawmakers closed that pension plan to new participants in 1993.

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