Plan payoff marks time; Balto. County Council prepares to cut back retirement package; 'It's the right thing to do'; Critics note payments of $89,250 a year that Ruppersberger will get


Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger will make history for at least one achievement: The $89,250 annual pension he'll collect when his term ends in 2002 might never be topped.

That's because the Baltimore County Council is ready to cut back on the region's most generous retirement package for politicians.

Responding to years of criticism over payments that Ruppersberger will receive beginning at age 56, council members say the time has come to change the way the benefits for local elected officials are calculated.

"It's the right thing to do, I believe," said Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat.

Ruppersberger will collect so much because the current law gives him credit for all the years he spent as a county councilman and as county executive based on his most recent -- and highest -- annual salary of $105,000 a year.

The system is more generous than that for the governor, other Maryland county executives and many in the private sector.

If the change had been enacted before the November 1998 election, the executive would have lost $10,000 a year in benefits.

"The situation right now is outrageous," said John J. Bishop, the former Republican delegate who criticized the retirement program in his unsuccessful bid for county executive last year. "It's overly generous."

The proposed change -- sponsored by all seven council members -- distinguishes between political jobs, calculating years spent as a councilman separately from those as executive. If the proposed law were applied to Ruppersberger, he would collect $17,312 from his time on the County Council, and $42,000 from the executive job. The payout of $59,312 would be about $30,000 less than he will get.

"I could make that work," said Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, who earns his living tilling the land. "That would be better than farming."

The change covers only one rare situation: when a council member becomes executive. Ruppersberger and Dale Anderson, in 1966, are the only council members to have been elected executive.

Ruppersberger will take no hit. The new rules would not take effect until voters pick a new executive in 2002. Term limits prevent him a third term.

The council members could be hurting themselves. Several are contemplating a run at the top job, so the law they are likely to approve by year's end could mean the difference between a retirement condominium in Palm Beach or one in Pikesville.

"I've had people say to me, 'You'll never change that,' " said Moxley, who earns $38,500 a year as a council member.

Refusing to join the debate, Ruppersberger said he has no opinion on whether the law should be changed. Asked if his retirement payments will be too high, he said "Good question," then paused to compose his answer.

"I took a pay cut to be executive," said the former prosecutor and private-practice attorney. "I feel very strongly about public service. I did not get into this job for my salary and pension."

Healthy paychecks and benefits "are incentives for good people to take the job" running a $1.7 billion government with 7,800 employees, he added.

While five of seven council members were on record as supporting reform more than a year ago, no bill was introduced. Ruppersberger said he did not ask council members for a delay.

Few could have envisioned the ballooning pension payments when the system was created nearly three decades ago and councilmen earned $3,000 a year. But Ruppersberger's case highlighted the system's generosity.

In contrast, a Baltimore mayor who spent 20 years in office would get about $47,000 a year. A governor with 30 years of elected service would collect about $81,000. Several area counties have switched to 401(k)-style retirement plans based primarily on contributions.

Politicians say the 13.85 percent of salary they contribute to the plan is higher than that of other county employees, which ranges from 4 percent to 6.5 percent. Their retirement payments blend contributions and taxpayer dollars.

Council members are leaving untouched some favorable elements of the plan.

Elected officials would collect 100 percent of their salaries after 20 years in office. They would be vested after four years, and could receive payments regardless of age after 16 years. Those payments would be based on their highest 12-month average salary, not the three-year average common in many plans.

Because of that, Baltimore County's pensions for politicians would remain more generous than most in the private sector, said John D. O'Neill, chairman emeritus of the Maryland Taxpayers Association, a watchdog group.

O'Neill finds no fault with the spirit of the change.

"It's certainly a step in the right direction," he said.

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