Trimming off the top; Early retirement: Thinning top-heavy Baltimore County Fire Department is long overdue.


FIVE years ago, the Baltimore County Council observed that the county's fire department was "over staffed in the upper ranks" and asked for a study on how to reduce the number of deputy chiefs and battalion commanders. Finally, at the end of this month, the council will have the opportunity to thin out that top-heavy department.

County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger has proposed an attractive early retirement plan that would free up about $825,000 annually. If top fire officials retire early, the county would have two fire chiefs instead of five and 15 battalion commanders instead of 30.

The savings would be used to staff four paramedic units.

The executive's incentive package dangles tasty bait before these high-ranking officials. If they choose to retire before April 1, the base used to calculate their retirement benefits will contain 27 pay periods instead of the normal 26. The plan also offers to double the credit for any unused sick leave, which can be added to years of service. For some retirees, this could add several thousand dollars a year in retirement pay.

In addition, any deputy chiefs or battalion commanders with at least 20 years of service will be able to collect benefits immediately if they are younger than 55. For a 25-year officer earning $75,000 a year, the annual retirement pay could be as much as $49,000.

Reducing the number of chiefs and increasing the number of paramedics is good public policy. The number of paramedic calls is increasing each year, and there is no demonstrable need to have so many top supervisors in the fire department. No one is being forced out of a job. These retirements would be voluntary.

The council, which acknowledged the need for this legislation years ago, should not hesitate.

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