Baltimore County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz deserves credit for drafting legislation that would rein in the council's absurdly generous pension system, which pays any councilman who retires with five terms of service 100 percent of his annual salary for life. That's about to happen for the first time in county history when Councilman Vincent J. Gardina retires after his term ends next year, earning him $54,000 annually, ad infinitum. Not bad for a part-time job.
The council has had plenty of opportunities over the years to address a benefit that has grown out of all proportion to its original intent (council salaries were $3,000 a year when it was first established in 1971), but it has done nothing. In fact, it initially looked like the council might still do nothing after Sun reporter Larry Carson started asking questions about Mr. Gardina's pension last month. Only one councilman, Joseph Bartenfelder, expressed any interest at the time in reforming the pension system, and he had the added incentive of a likely run for county executive in his future. However, Mr. Kamenetz, also a likely executive contender, beat him to the punch by announcing plans for his legislation this week.
Mr. Kamenetz's proposal would cap pensions at 60 percent of a councilman's final salary, which is the same benefit now afforded to state legislators. (Of course, they don't make as much as Baltimore County councilmen, $43,500 to the council's $54,000, notwithstanding legislators' annual 90 days of more than full-time work.)
That's a good start, but the reform should go further. Under the Kamenetz proposal, council members would be eligible for their full pension after just 12 years of service. Legislators have to work 20 years to get their 60 percent. Baltimore City Council members can get up to half their salary for life, but they must serve 20 years and are eligible for no pension at all unless they serve at least 12. Before the bill comes to a final vote, we hope Mr. Kamenetz and his colleagues will tighten the eligibility requirements so that it takes longer for a councilman to achieve the maximum benefit.
Others want even more strict reforms. Steve Bailey, the former Republican state's attorney candidate and co-chairman of the Baltimore County chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which protested the benefit at a recent County Council meeting, wants the change to apply to present members of the council. That goes a little too far. The goal here is not to punish council members but to make their benefits a saner reflection of those received by their peers and by rank-and-file county employees.
Mr. Bailey also suggested that the council ditch pensions altogether and adopt a 401(k)-style benefit. Shifting to a defined contribution plan such as a 401(k) is something the county should consider in general because of the burden pension benefits place on the balance sheet - a problem of which the council pensions are only a tiny part. But any move in that direction should apply to all county workers, not just the elected officials.
Voters would like to believe that the salaries paid to elected officials are no more than just compensation for their time, neither an incentive nor a disincentive to perform public service. Although Mr. Gardina says that achieving his full pension for life didn't factor into his decision not to seek a sixth term, the timing of his choice is sure to feed voters' distrust. Passing a strengthenend version of Mr. Kamenetz's proposal should be sufficient to restore that trust.
But in another bit of bad timing, this controversy has erupted at the same time that the county's Personnel and Salary Advisory Board has recommended a 2 percent raise for council members and an 8 percent raise for the county executive, starting in the next term. As small as that 2 percent raise is (consider: that stands for all four years), the pressure of next year's elections and the recession may demand that the council reject it, too. That may well be the price they pay for not having reformed their pensions years ago, when it was merely the right thing to do, not also politically expedient.
I've got a better solution. Instead of limiting pensions, let's limit County Council members to two terms, effective immediately.
The idea of retroactively taking away the pensions from Baltimore County Council members seems unfair. Kevin Kamenetz offers a smart, well-reasoned compromise.
Chalk up one brownie point for Councilman Kevin Kamenetz for making such a suggestion just before election year.