Our view: The Baltimore County executive should support legislation to abolish a sweetheart pension deal that will net him $384,000 when he leaves office
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamentz did the right thing recently in rescinding a policy that allowed a small circle of his top aides and department heads to collect lump-sum payouts ranging into the six figures when they leave county service. Now he needs to do the right thing and support a change to a county law that will do the same for him.
Seven years ago, when he was a county councilman, Mr. Kamenetz voted in favor of an amendment to a pension reform bill that allows certain exceptions to the county's prohibition against "double dipping," or the practice of retiring from one county job, collecting a pension, being hired to a new county job, and accruing a new pension. Generally speaking, that's bad fiscal practice, as it would weaken the pension system if done on a wide basis, but there are some circumstances in which it can be a good idea — it can be a way to address hard-to-fill positions in county government or ones in which early retirement is a problem.
But that's not the case for Mr. Kamenetz. The county does not have trouble filling the job of executive; rather, Mr. Kamenetz expended no small amount of effort (and campaign contributors' cash) to get it. The $384,000 lump sum payout Mr. Kamenetz will be eligible to pocket based on the council pension he "banked" during his eight years as executive — on top of the combined $118,000 a year he will receive in annual pension payments — will serve no public policy purpose whatsoever.
Even worse, the manner in which he became eligible for it reflects a blatant conflict of interest. Not just any county employee can take advantage of this provision; it requires the approval of the county administrative officer, who happens to be appointed by and can be fired by the county executive. Unlike other exceptions to the county's double-dipping rules, this provision includes no specific criteria for eligibility or limits on benefits. It is entirely discretionary.
Mr. Kamenetz isn't the only person to benefit from the provision; three other council members who voted for it — Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, Vincent J. Gardina and John A. Olszewski Sr. — are also eligible for the benefit to one degree or another. When The Sun first reported on the arrangement in 2011, county officials said it was being used for some non-elected employees as well, though how many and in what circumstances is unclear.
There may be a fiscal justification for affording the benefit in some of those cases. One can also make an argument, albeit one we find not particularly convincing, that there's no harm to the policy in the case of Messrs. Moxley, Gardina and Olszewski. County officials have previously argued that the benefit is cost-neutral in that they would have been eligible to collect their council pensions even if they had not been hired into administration jobs after their service, and anyone Mr. Kamenetz hired instead would have then been eligible to accrue new benefits. However, the discretionary nature of the program is still troublesome. It still amounts to a new county executive being given the power through his appointed administrative officer to reward old friends and allies — like Mr. Gardina, who transferred $200,000 from his campaign account to a slate that helped Mr. Kamenetz during his first run for executive.
And no one can argue with a straight face that the provision is cost-neutral in Mr. Kamentz's case. Had the double dipping provision not been in place, there is no question he would have run for executive anyway — as would have his chief opponent in his first election, former councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, who also voted in favor of the policy. If the provision didn't exist, nothing about how the county has been run for the last seven years would be different, except the taxpayers would be a few hundred thousand dollars better off.
Councilwoman Vicki Almond, who is considering a run for executive herself, says she plans to introduce legislation to abolish this benefit. The term-limited Mr. Kamenetz, who is considering a run for governor, would be wise to support it. We can only imagine what a skewering he would get from his opponents if he didn't.
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