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Commentaryby David A. Plymyer8:22 amJun 3, 20240

Before the Baltimore County Council tonight: A vote to enrich its members’ pensions

Bill 40-24 makes an overly generous retirement plan even more lucrative for its seven members [OP-ED]

Above: Members of the 2024 Baltimore County Council congratulate Izzy Patoka as their new chair. From left: Mike Ertel, David Marks, Patoka (holding gavel), Julian Jones, Wade Kach and Pat Young. Todd Crandell was absent. (Mark Reutter)

Years spent in county government made me an opponent of pensions and other generous retirement benefits for members of a county council.

Council members who have their eyes on a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow lose sight of their duty to act in the best interests of their constituents, avoid tough decisions and focus on doing whatever it takes to remain in office.

Political expediency replaces the pursuit of sound governmental policy as their guiding principle.

The situation in Baltimore County, exacerbated by the absence of term limits, is a prime example.

Members there are so preoccupied with avoiding controversy and prolonging their careers on the council that they live in what a recent Baltimore Sun editorial described as a “do-the-minimum world.”

They haven’t been shy, however, about adding to their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Bill 40-24, scheduled tonight for a vote by the council, is the latest in a series of measures intended to make the overly generous pension plan for members of the council even better.

Bill 40-24

If passed, Bill 40-24 will change the way that pension benefits paid to retired council members are adjusted.

Under current law, retired members receive the same COLAs awarded to other county retirees. These COLAs have been small and infrequent. Since 2011, county retirees have gotten only three COLAs, a 1% increase, a 1.25% increase and a 3% increase, The Brew reported last week.

Councilman Wade Kach (R, 3rd) has a better idea for himself and his colleagues.

Bill 40-24 would carve out a special exception for retired council members, linking adjustments in their pensions to increases in the salaries of current and future members.

County Councilman Wade Kach is angling to give himself and his colleagues a 13% raise when they retire (5/30/24)

A council member’s pension is calculated by multiplying a specified percentage of the member’s “final average compensation” (generally the amount of the member’s last salary before retirement) by the member’s years of service.

The percentage applied to the final average compensation is known as the benefit accrual rate, and the rate for retired council members is 5%, which is exceptionally high.

(For those interested in doing the math: Final average compensation x .05 the number of years of service = the amount of the annual pension.)

Under the bill, the pension of a retired member would be recalculated each time the pay of active council members is increased, with the new salary for active members used instead of the retiree’s final average compensation to calculate the amount of the retiree’s pension.

Favored Treatment

There is no doubt that retired council members will fare much better than other county retirees when it comes to post-retirement benefit adjustments. Nor is there any doubt that such favored treatment is the intent of Kach’s bill.

For example, it would increase the pension of the 76-year-old Republican by 13% if he retires at the end of his current term.

That’s because legislation passed by the council last year, Bill 8-23, increases the salary of council members first elected or re-elected for the term beginning in December 2026 from $69,000 to $78,000.

This council isn’t shy about adding to their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Kach has defended the bill as implementing a provision used to adjust the pensions of retired members of the General Assembly in the state’s Legislative Pension Plan.

What he failed to mention is that the provision would have a far greater impact on pension benefits in the county’s plan because of salary differences and a much higher benefit accrual rate.

Recent salary increases for county lawmakers have outstripped the increases for state legislators.

Bill 56-22 increased members’ salaries from $62,500 to $69,000 for the current term, and Bill 8-23 increased them to $78,000 for the next term.

The benefit accrual rate in the state’s plan is only 3%. That means that an increase in the current salaries of members of the General Assembly produces much smaller increases in the pensions of retired legislators than the same increase in the current salaries of members of the county would produce in the pensions of retired council members under Kach’s bill.

There is only one reason for Bill 40-24, and that is to make the council’s pension plan even better than it already is.

Evading a Pension Cap

Bill 56-22, passed in March 2023, increased the maximum amount of the pension for a retired council member with at least 16 years of service from 60% to 70% of the member’s final average compensation. The original version of the bill would have eliminated the cap entirely, but drew opposition.

Bill 40-24, which is now before the council, states that the pension of a retired member shall be recalculated based on the salary of a current active member “notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this subtitle.” The cap on pension benefits is contained in the subtitle.

All current members could benefit from the windfall contained in Bill 40-24.

Does that mean that the cap on the initial amount of a pension would not apply to a post-retirement adjustment in the amount made under Bill 40-24? Or is that just sloppy draftsmanship?

Even if the cap is retained, the bill would have a salutary effect on retired council members subject to the 70% cap on their pensions.

For example, if Councilman David Marks leaves office at the end of the current term with 16 years of service, the amount of his pension, as calculated by the formula set forth above, would be $55,200.

His actual pension would be reduced, however, to $48,300, which is 70% of $69,000, his current salary.

But if Bill 40-24 passes tonight, Marks’ pension would increase at the beginning of the next council’s term to $54,600, which is 70% of $78,000.

Marks will be 53 in September 2026. An annual pension of $54,600 beginning at age 53 that would rise in future years.

Not bad for a part-time job.

The other direct beneficiaries of the bill are Todd K. Crandell, Julian E. Jones Jr. and Israel “Izzy” Patoka. And those who could partake in the windfall if they remain on the body: Mike Ertel and Pat Young.

Again, not bad for those voting tonight.

Incentivizing Incumbents

Despite scathing editorials and condemnation from good-government organizations such as NeighborSpace and We the People of Baltimore County, the current council has doubled down on the practice of “councilmanic courtesy.”

The practice effectively Balkanizes the county into seven separate fiefdoms under the control of individual members for purposes of zoning decisions and development approval. It makes countywide land use planning virtually impossible.

The life-or-death power that council members hold over development projects in their districts gives members tremendous leverage when it comes to campaign fundraising.

Chairman Patoka reported a balance of $980,031 in his campaign account at the end of 2023 – more than any other city or county council member in Maryland.

Second in the state is his predecessor as council chairman, Julian Jones, with a $838,167 campaign war chest.

For incumbent members, councilmanic courtesy is all about wielding power, building up donations from business interests and retaining their seats.

There is no doubt a lucrative retirement plan drives their desire to remain on the council.

Maybe someday someone will reconsider whether lavish pensions for part-time legislators do more harm than good.

It’s a discussion that should begin with the pros and cons of turning seats on city or county councils into lucrative, long-term careers.

David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney after 31 years in the county law office. To reach him: dplymyer@comcast.net and Twitter @dplymyer.

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