Even if the Baltimore County Council revises a generous pension policy that allows officials to retire at full salary after 20 years' service, reformers will continue to demand sweeping changes and the issue will likely dominate the campaign next year, political watchers say.
"The debate is going to get tiresome, but this is an issue that has legs," said Matthew Crenson, a retired Johns Hopkins University political science professor. "Residents are very sensitive, especially in a recession, to someone getting a steady income at full salary for the rest of his life, when they are looking at their own diminished retirement funds."
Councilman Vincent Gardina, 53, the first official to qualify for the benefit, will complete his fifth term next year and retire with an annual pension of $54,000. The policy, established in 1971, when yearly salaries for council service were about $3,000, has enraged residents.
Nearly two dozen decried the present system at a recent council session. They jeered Gardina when he said he had to leave to attend to a hospitalized brother just before the discussion began.
While constituents appreciate public service, Michael Esteve, a Loyola University student, said, without reform, "You will all feel repercussions at the polls."
Betty Schwartz of Catonsville said, "As we see home values drop and our own pensions diminish, if you maintain this policy, the message to us is that you are plain out of touch. It is a message of greed."
Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, who is eyeing the county executive seat, said last Monday that he would sponsor legislation to cap officials' pensions at 60 percent. His bill, which the council will consider early next year, would limit pensions to 20 percent of the salary for every four-year term served and would cap pensions after three terms. The bill is expected to pass, but would not affect current council members.
"Nobody is calling for you to give back what you have earned," said John Gordon of Ruxton. "We are calling for an understanding of what people are going through in this period of time."
Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, said the sluggish economy and cushy pensions could make for a rocky campaign. The pensions issue will definitely resonate with voters, he said.
"Will it be a campaign issue? You bet it will and watch how the candidates dance around it," Norris said.
Berchie L. Manley, a Catonsville community activist and former council member, said she frequently brought up the pension issue, which she frequently called "a grave injustice," in her campaigns for council. Voters were indifferent then, but the recession has changed that thinking, she said.
"Pensions will be an issue this time, because people are frightened about the economy and unemployment," she said. "I can't imagine that any incumbent will want to run with this hanging over his head."
Although Gardina is at the center of debate, four of his council colleagues will reach the same 20-year milestone, if they are successful in winning a fifth term on the seven-member panel or if they secure another county office.
Kamenetz, Councilmen Joseph Bartenfelder, the current chairman, T. Bryan McIntire, and Stephen G. Samuel Moxley will all complete their fourth terms in 2010. Bartenfelder and Kamenetz are likely to run for the county executive seat; McIntire plans to seek a fifth term and Moxley said he has yet to decide.
"The council would be foolish to leave this issue unaddressed," said Steve Bailey, co-chairman of the Baltimore County chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group. "It will absolutely be an election issue. How could it not be with the numbers of people filing to run? A candidate could easily capitalize on this issue. It resonates with voters, particularly in this economy."
His organization will push for broader revisions, possibly switching to a contribution plan rather than burdening the county with pension liabilities, Bailey said.
Baltimore County has a $2 billion pension portfolio with about 10,000 members contributing. There are about 6,000 retirees. The FY 2010 budget includes $13 million that can be appropriated, if the portfolio does not perform well, officials said.
"Just as families are experiencing asset reduction, the government's investments are experiencing the same," said Don Mohler, county spokesman. "To offset losses in the pension fund, the funding budgeted can be appropriated to offset losses."
As they campaign for county executive, Democrats Bartenfelder and Kamenetz may find themselves defending even a reformed pension policy.
"Any Republican opponent will certainly bring up the fact that the cap does not apply to current members," Crenson said. "That is a fact that can be used to good political effect."