Facing an official exodus


Call them Howard County's '70s class -- local government leaders who began public careers 30 years ago, as Columbia's development spurred growth, but are now ready to move on.

The lure of a pension topped by a healthy new salary -- or just a West Virginia retreat -- is hard to resist. That means big changes are coming.

"The issue is institutional memory, and one of the things Howard has had a pretty good record of is bringing people up from within," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., former county planning director who retired a year ago after a 36-year career in Howard to take the same job in Anne Arundel County.

"At 56, if you're going to do anything else, if you wait until you're 60 and start looking, it's different," said Rutter, a Howard native and resident.

Rutter, Citizens Services chief Manus O'Donnell and police Maj. Jeffrey Spaulding are gone. Others who are pension-eligible after 30 years of service are thinking about leaving. They include budget director Raymond S. Wacks, social services director Sam Marshall, Community Action Council director Dorothy L. Moore, Police Chief G. Wayne Livesay, County Council auditor Ron Weinstein and state assessment supervisor Howard Levenson.

More just below their level are considering the option. And also looking at it is County Executive James N. Robey, a career civil servant and former police chief, whose second and final term ends in 2006.

"It could make things very difficult," Robey said. "Hopefully, we've trained and groomed people to succeed them when they move on."

Wacks has applied for a new job -- the vacancy created by the firing of Bruce M. Venter, the county schools' chief business officer. The job remains vacant as Superintendent John R. O'Rourke also prepares to leave.

A 1974 hire at $12,000 a year, Wacks said some high-ranking people have stayed because Robey and former County Executive Charles I. Ecker before him didn't replace people when they took office.

Moore was a community worker in Ellicott City when she started in 1969. and has been the county's chief advocate for the poor since 1987. "I'm thinking very seriously about [retirement]," she said.

But she said that after she retires she will have to "find some niche to do, because I'm not going to stay home. I've got to do something to bring something to my soul."

A. Roy Stecher isn't a name most people know. But as chief of the county's Bureau of Central Services, he has run the county's vehicle fleet and the printing office for decades. He sold his Catonsville house and is leaving for his West Virginia retirement home next month.

"In my department, I've outlived them all," he mused recently, recalling his start in county government running the printing press. Now he supervises 50 people.

"I'm going to miss the people here very much. They are really hard-working people," he said.

He's not interested in a new job. "Why would I ever want to leave a job that I built, that I love," just to work somewhere else? he asked.

Some worry that the retirements could intensify staffing shortages.

"We have a lot of people getting close to the age when they could go, and there's not been a whole lot of new influx" of employees, said James M. Irvin, the county public works director, who has 27 years of service.

"The people who do the real work [such as highway workers] are the ones I'm worried about leaving," he said, noting the Public Works Department is 40 people below authorized strength -- a staffing level about equal to that of 1988.

There are 64 county government employees with 30 or more years of service who are eligible for a pension, said Robert S. Lazarewicz, the county human resources administrator. County police and firefighters qualify for a 50 percent pension at 20 years of service, and police get 80 percent after 30 years -- the top rate.

The pension is key to these decisions, said O'Donnell, who retired last month to look for a new job.

"Each year is based on the highest three years of salary" he said, multiplied by a fraction of the number of years worked over the age of 52. "Unless your salary is going up, you're only gaining 1/52nd per year [if you stay]."

By leaving after 30 years, a person making an average of $100,000 a year would qualify for a pension of $57,700 (plus cost-of-living increases), added to the pay for a new job and the chance to earn new pension benefits.

In an attempt to keep 25-year veteran police officers, the County Council approved a deferred pension program this month that lets officers work three or four more years and collect their accrued pension for that period as a cash lump sum when they leave.

Spaulding, who started as a police cadet in high school, retired last month after 30 years to become police chief in Westminster. Howard's department "is extremely well girded for the future" with quality younger officers, he said.

Livesay is thinking about that option, although he said he is committed to staying until Robey leaves.

"Had I not been appointed chief, I would have retired," Livesay said, adding that he, too, will remain in Howard after he leaves the department.

Because of the pension structure, he said, "I'm working for little [additional] money, really. But I love the department. I love my job."

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