Baltimore county renews incentive to delay future retirements of FFs, medics, police
The Deferred Retirement Option Program applies to hires made after July 2007; newer union members agreed to pay more in retirement benefits
BALTIMORE — Baltimore County has approved restarting a program to incentivize police, firefighters and paramedics to delay future retirements and extend their careers.
The benefits incentive, known as a Deferred Retirement Option Program, won’t have an immediate effect in curbing departures from public safety agencies, as the change applies to hires made after July 2007, who aren’t eligible for retirement until 25 or 30 years of service.
Still, the renewed version of the program is being praised as a recruitment and retention tool, as well as a way to keep more experienced public safety professionals on the job.
“We are grateful every day for our brave and selfless first responders, and this new benefit demonstrates our commitment to making sure we continue to honor them even after they retire,” County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said in a Tuesday news release.
A similar program in the county was ended for new public safety hires after 2007, in part due to cost concerns.
The renewed version will not cost taxpayers more, according to Olszewski and leaders of unions representing county police and firefighters.
The more recently hired members of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 and Baltimore County Professional Firefighters and Paramedics IAFF Local 1311 agreed to pay more in retirement benefits to cover the cost of their new program options.
The proposal was approved by the County Council on Monday.
Councilman Tom Quirk, an Oella Democrat, said though there have been concerns about the cost of the Deferred Retirement Option Program in the past, this plan was structured in a way that employees will increase their contribution to the retirement system.
”From the actuarial report I read, it’s not going to be a big pressure or strain for the county to roll out,” he said. “That’s important.”
Under the plan, employees who stay for three years past retirement eligibility receive what’s called a “DROP allowance” consisting of those three years of retirement benefits, the contributions made by the employee during that period and 5% interest on the allowance, according to a county news release.
Employees can choose to receive that allowance in one payment or can send it to a retirement plan.
They also receive regular pension payments calculated as if they had retired three years prior to when they leave the agency.
Firefighters are eligible for retirement after 30 years and police officers after 25.
Firefighters will pay an additional 0.78% and sworn police officers an additional 1.30% of their base salary, according to a fiscal note for the legislation approving the DROP. That analysis said the first DROP to be used under this plan would be after July 1, 2040 for firefighters and after July 1, 2035 for sworn police officers.
The leaders of both unions said they had been pushing since 2007 to reinstate the option for employees hired after DROP was ended.
But both said it’s not all that needs to be done to address the county’s public safety staffing.
John Sibiga, president of the union representing firefighters and EMS, said the union hoped to move back to a 25-year requirement for retirement eligibility, rather than 30 years, particularly for EMS employees working with large call volumes.
Some local jurisdictions still have a 25-year retirement requirement, and Sibiga said he’s seen paramedics and EMTs leave the county for a more “retirement-friendly” area.
And, as for fire personnel: “We just can’t hire fast enough,” Sibiga said.
Baltimore County Police, too, are experiencing staffing constraints. A vacancy report from the department, shared by Dave Folderauer, president of the union representing police, reflected 159 vacancies as of June 3 and 40 pending retirements. The department has roughly 1,900 sworn employees.
Folderauer said he’s suggested addressing what he called a “record” number of vacancies by instituting retention bonuses or hiring recently retired officers as sworn police officers, with full arrest powers. The department now hires retirees in capacities such as background investigators, he said.
Still, he said the DROP will bring “longevity” and some financial stability for officers.
“Keeping the people that are experts in their craft, in their field — it’s important because that makes your younger cops even better,” he said.
The previous iteration of the DROP led to some large one-time payments for top police officers, The Baltimore Sun reported in 2011.
Three majors left their jobs that year with payouts of more than half a million dollars, based on information provided for county employees who retired since June 1, 2011. Four captains and two lieutenants also left with payments of more than $400,000.
A former police union president said at the time it was not reflective of most DROP payments, as law enforcement pays people based on “responsibilities and rank.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.
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