Before an audience of about 60 uniformed sheriff's deputies gathered in its chambers, the Harford County Council unanimously approved a new pension plan that will allow officers to retire earlier and with more benefits.
"Did you think I would vote against this while facing all these deputies?" Councilman Dion F. Guthrie quipped. "I know how important these benefits are, and they are long overdue."
The vote last week received a standing ovation.
"We need to do this if we have any hope of attracting and retaining officers and keeping morale high," said Councilman Richard C. Slutzky. "These officers deserve this benefit after all their years of service."
Deputy Fred Visnaw, president of the Harford County Deputy Sheriff's Union, said he encouraged officers to attend the council meeting so that officials "could see who they are helping and to put a face on the pension idea."
"This will make a huge difference," Visnaw said.
Of the 248 officers eligible for the statewide Law Enforcement Officers' Pension System, 237 opted to participate in it, effective July 1. Eleven are undecided. No officer voted against the plan, said Nancy Levy Giorno, deputy county attorney.
"This action sends a clear message that you support these officers' efforts and sacrifices," Bob Benedetto, a retired Baltimore County police officer and candidate for sheriff, told council members. "A deputy's day can go from mundane to life-threatening in no time. Stress is a big threat to health."
The county has about $30 million in the Sheriff's Office pension plan, which was implemented about 10 years ago.
Officials are uncertain how much of the current pension plan will be transferred into the penison system because the 57 retired employees and 93 correctional officers, who were ineligible for the new system, will remain in the current pension plan.
Each officer typically contributes 7 percent of their salary to the pension plan. An actuarial study to determine the county's contribution for the new plan is not complete, but officials have budgeted $3 million, which should be adequate to transfer into the program, said Janet Schaub, the county's acting director of human resources.
The pension system makes officers eligible for retirement as early as age 50 instead of the current age, 62. It allows an officer with 30 years service to retire with 60 percent of his annual salary.
Many law enforcement agencies across the state, including the Maryland State Police, have opted into the system.
"It might mean they don't have to work a part-time job in retirement," said Benedetto.
Allowing officers to transfer from other jurisdictions and apply their accumulated time toward retirement could benefit Harford with a more experienced police force, Visnaw said.
"Our retention rates are high, but allowing officers to transfer their time might mean we can draw experienced police officers, especially ones who live here," he said.