A Baltimore County councilman with an eye on the county executive seat wants to limit the generous benefits available to council members, a response to an outcry over the current system that allows veteran legislators to collect their full salary for life after serving 20 years.
Councilman Kevin Kamenetz has drafted a bill that would cap pension payments at 60 percent of a council member's salary at retirement.
The legislation, expected to come before the council early next year, would address concerns that arose after Councilman Vincent Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat who has served nearly five terms on the council, announced plans to retire at the end of next year. He would be the first to take advantage of the pension plan.
"These officials are rolling in our tax dollars," said Betty LeBrun of Owings Mills at a recent council session. "It is the arrogance of power to vote yourself a cushy pension."
Kamenetz's bill, if approved by the council, would not affect the pensions of the current members.
The county's pension policy, which dates to 1971 when salaries were about $3,000, allows a council member who has served five terms to retire at full salary. At 53, Gardina would receive $54,000 annually for the remainder of his life for what has been a part-time job. The benefit has drawn the ire of county residents and a pledge from local leaders for reform.
"I am trying to rectify a situation that people didn't conceive when the system was created and that people today do not see as just," said Kamenetz, a four-term councilman who is considering a run for county executive. "I have listened to public comment and I see this bill as a thoughtful approach."
Kamenetz patterned the proposal on the state government's plan that limits pension benefits to 60 percent of an official's salary. His bill would also limit pensions to 20 percent of the councilman's salary for every four-year term served.
But reform advocates say the measure does not go far enough.
While Steve Bailey, co-chairman of the Baltimore County chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group, applauds "this first step by Kamenetz," he said he will push for more restrictions. He suggested capping the current members at 80 percent of their salaries. He also is urging officials to consider a contribution plan, such as a 401(k), rather than burdening the county with pension liabilities that extend decades into the future.
"The bill does nothing to address the pension issue for current members," Bailey said. "It only applies to those not in the system, when this bill passes. The most glaring and disappointing aspect of this is that none of the present councilmen are making a sacrifice. It shows a lack of leadership."
If enacted, the bill would take effect Feb. 1 and would apply to anyone who joins the council after that date.
Kamenetz, as well as Councilmen T. Bryan McIntire, Samuel Moxley and Joseph Bartenfelder, the council chairman, would be eligible for the same pension benefit as Gardina if they secure a fifth term. McIntire plans to run again. Moxley is undecided and Bartenfelder, like Kamenetz, is eyeing the county executive seat.
Bartenfelder, a former state legislator, has said he understands residents' anger and favors pension reform.
Kamenetz said he expects his council colleagues to support the bill. Councilman John Olszewski, a three-term member, has signed on as a co-sponsor.
"If you continue to serve after your pension maxes out, you are showing people that you are in public service to make a difference," Olszewski said.
The council is aware that many residents are struggling economically and reacted strongly to a recommendation last week from the county's Personnel and Salary Advisory Board calling for a 2 percent increase in their salaries and 8 percent for the county executive, starting with the new term. Members, who must approve any increase, noted the downturn in the economy, rising unemployment and mounting foreclosures and said they will oppose any effort to add to elected officials' salaries.
"I rejected the last salary increase and I will reject this one as well," Olszewski said. "I think most of us are in agreement on that."
In 2006, the council approved an increase from $45,000 to $54,000 with an additional $6,000 for the chairman.