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Make treachery costly

February 17, 1997

Now that state officials have tentatively agreed to chop Hagerstown's $9.9 million pension debt in half, it's time to ask some questions about what happened and what it means.

The debt was created by the 1996 General Assembly, as state pension system officials crafted a bill to keep other local governments (with much higher employee turnover rates) from fleeing the system. It seems clear that those same state officials misled both the delegation and city officials about what the bill's true costs would be.

However, Tim Carey, an actuarial consultant working for the city, says he warned city officials that something like this might happen. City officials say that's not the message they got, but they haven't ruled out the possibility that Carey's warning was couched in the specialized language of his profession, language that didn't raise the alarm for them. Given the previous pension flap of 1981 and the potential for fiscal disaster, shouldn't someone have become an in-house expert on this system?

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Then there's the delegation. The bill came through the system late in the session, when there were lots of other things going on. We understand that it's not possible to read every bill, and that lawmakers depend on the committee system to weed out any bad proposals prior to a vote.

But there were indications of trouble. Although the House Appropriations Committee's floor report indicated the bill would substantially increase Hagerstown's costs, no one gave the local delegation any warning of that, and only Del. Bruce Poole failed to vote for the bill.

The bottom line: Hagerstown and Washington County were victimized by pension system officials. And although officials are acting to limit the damage, delegation members have to question why state officials and fellow lawmakers weren't afraid of pulling a fast one on them. Isn't it time they served notice that there'll be a price to pay the next time it happens?

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