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Commentaryby David A. Plymyer6:43 amJul 9, 20240

Baltimore County councilmen resort to legislative logrolling in their quest for a pension windfall

The charter amendment that expands the council from seven to nine members also awards incumbents with a salary and pension boost [OP-ED]

Above: The Baltimore County Council, clockwise from top left: Izzy Patoka, David Marks, Mike Ertel, Pat Young, Wade Kach, Julian E. Jones and Todd Crandell.

Last week the Baltimore County Council passed Bill 47-24, which places a proposed amendment to the county charter on the November ballot for approval by voters that would expand the size of the body from seven to nine members.

Largely lost in the debate over expansion was the fact that the amendment also would add language to the charter stating that “membership on the council shall be considered a full-time position for the purpose of determining compensation.”

I believe the council included that measure as part of a scheme to allow incumbent members to reap a windfall in pension benefits from a salary increase that likely will take effect next term if the amendment is approved by voters, even if the members leave the council at the end of the current term in 2026.

For example, if the salary of a council member is increased from $69,000 to $100,000 next term to reflect the change to full-time status, the future pensions of council incumbents would jump by 45% over the pensions they would have received before the enactment of Bill 47-24 and Bill 40-24, the true purpose of which was not apparent until Bill 47-24 was introduced.

Six of the seven incumbents now on the council are eligible to retire at the end of 2026,

If they did so, the 45% increase would apply to their pensions even though they left office before the increase in salary took effect.

That’s unconscionable by any standard.

Distorting a Reform Measure

A Structure Review Workgroup was established by the current council in response to public pressure to expand the size of the council. Ten of the 11 voting members were appointed by the council itself.

It recommended that the charter be amended to increase the size of the legislative branch from seven to nine members.

The workgroup also recommended that “the compensation for councilmembers should be increased to be commensurate with full-time professionals.”

It noted that the longstanding practice of considering membership on the council to be a part-time position was not written into law, but stopped short of recommending that the mandate be added to the charter as done in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

The workgroup issued its report and recommendations on March 31, setting the stage for a scenario that began with Bill 40-24 and culminated in Bill 47-24.

Councilman Wade Kach (R, 3rd) represents northern Baltimore County.

Councilman Wade Kach (R, 3rd) has represented northern Baltimore County since 2014.

Step 1: Pension Bill

Councilman Wade Kach introduced Bill 40-24 on May 6. He described the bill as adopting the process used in the pension plan for members of the Maryland General Assembly to make “cost-of-living” adjustments to the pensions paid to retired county council members.

Adjustments no longer will consist of simple percentage increases as done for other county retirees. Instead, they will be based on increases in the salary of current members of the council.

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

Before the Baltimore County Council tonight: A vote to enrich its members’ pensions (6/3/24)

The amount of a council member’s initial annual pension is calculated by multiplying the member’s “average final compensation” (which is usually the member’s final salary) by .05 and then multiplying the product by the member’s years of service on the council.

Henceforth, when the salary of council members is increased, Bill 40-24 substitutes the new salary paid to council members for “average final compensation” for purposes of recalculating a retired member’s pension.

In other words, incumbents looking toward their retirements have an interest in seeing future council salaries increase as much as possible.

The bill left the question of caps on council pensions ambiguous. The only reasonable interpretation for this is that it follows the state legislative plan, Namely, that council pensions are now capped at 60% of the salaries paid to current council members for members with fewer than 16 years of service, and 70% for members with 16 or more years of service.

The Kach pension bill sailed through the council on June 3, the same day that Bill 47-24 was introduced by Chair Izzy Patoka.

The Kach bill sailed through the council on June 3, the same day that Bill 47-24 was introduced by Chair Izzy Patoka.

The timing of Bill 40-24, unrelated to any general consideration of pensions or other benefits, was odd. It only makes sense in the context of Bill 47-24.

The council was facing a deadline to get the charter amendment on the November ballot.

Introducing Bill 40-24 after Bill 47-24 would have made the scheme by members to snag a big pension bonus from the charter amendment too obvious.

Step 2: Expansion Bill

The salary of council members is determined by the process that begins with the recommendation of the Personnel and Salary Advisory Board, submitted to the council within 15 days after the beginning of the fourth year of a council’s term.

If the charter amendment proposed by Bill 47-24 is approved in November, the board would be required to base its recommendation on council membership being a full-time position.

Let’s assume that the advisory board recommended, and the council approved, a relatively modest salary of $100,000. (The salary for full-time council members other than the chairpersons in Montgomery County is $156,284 and $141,958 in Prince George’s County.)

Councilmembers are eligible to retire regardless of age if they have at least 16 years of service or they can retire at age 55 if they have at least eight years of service.

Who Gets What

Six of the seven members are now eligible to retire in 2026. If they did, this is how the two bills together would impact their pensions:

• Councilman David Marks’ pension for 16 years of service would increase by $21,700 to $70,000, which is $1,000 more than his current salary of $69,000.

Marks will be 53 at the end of the current term. The lifetime value of his pension windfall would be about $650,000.

• Councilmen Kach, Julian Jones and Todd Crandell’s pension for 12 years of service would increase by $18,600 to $60,000.

• Councilman Izzy Patoka’s pension for eight years of service would increase by $12,400 to $40,000.

• Councilman Mike Ertel’s pension for four years of service would increase by $6,200 to $20,000.

(If one of the above retired as council chair, that would affect his pension because of the higher salary paid to the chair. I’ve omitted that possibility for the sake of simplicity.)

Meanwhile, if Councilman Pat Young, leaves in 2026 with four years of service, he’ll have to wait until he’s 55 to take advantage of the windfall.

County Council approves bill to increase its size from seven to nine members. The bill also included a sleeper provision that would greatly increase their potential salaries .

The expansion bill includes a sleeper provision that would greatly increase council salaries. The proposal will go before voters as a charter amendment in November. (Webex)

Actuarial Impact

The council approved Bill 40-24 even though County Auditor Lauren Smelkinson warned that the “actuarial impact” of the bill has yet to be determined.

She was referring to the fact that county pension plans are funded on an actuarial basis, meaning that periodic employer and employee contributions to a plan, plus investment returns on pension assets, are supposed to be sufficient to pay plan benefits and expenses.

Employer and employee contribution amounts are based on current benefits, which means that an immediate 45% increase in pensions could very well have an adverse impact on the plan and create an unfunded liability.

No wonder the council voted on Bills 40-24 and 47-24 without any discussion of their actuarial impact.

The Art of the Logroll

Broadly defined, legislative “logrolling” occurs when two unrelated measures, one more popular than the other, are combined in a single bill to facilitate enactment of the less popular measure.

Expanding the size of the council is more popular than increasing council members’ salaries.

Bill 47-24 was drafted in such a way that both measures are contained in a single charter amendment. A vote in November to expand the size of the council will also be a vote to make council membership a full-time position for purposes of compensation.

Chair Patoka could have separated the two in his bill to give voters the chance to vote for one but not the other. He didn’t.

In this case, the logrolling wasn’t unlawful. But it was an unnecessary and controversial choice.

In my opinion, it was a choice made for the same reason that the council rushed to approve Bill 40-24 in the hope that the media and county residents wouldn’t catch on until it was too late. And that reason was greed.

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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