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George Michael: A voice in the wilderness

March 23, 2012|By GEORGE MICHAEL

Like John the Baptist of old, Del. Andy Serafini, R-Washington, is “a lone voice crying in the wilderness.” The wilderness in this case is our General Assembly in Annapolis. 

The State of Maryland is facing a shortfall of $19 billion in the teacher retirement fund. Current funding by the O’Malley administration is barely 65 percent of what is needed to keep the commitments we have made. Delegate Serafini has stated that the shortfall will double in 10 years and triple in 20 if this problem is not addressed.

Last year, The Herald-Mail published the salaries of Washington County teachers, as well as all county and Hagerstown city employees. It took several months for the dust to clear in Mail Call over the debate about employee compensation for public workers. Many were surprised at the number of local officials earning $75,000, even $100,000 per year. 

Under the current system, the state (read taxpayer here) bears the investment and mortality risk to fully fund the program. This means that if the retirement accounts perform poorly, as indeed they have the last few years, and if retirees live longer, as indeed they are, there would be a big problem, as indeed there is. 

According to the Social Security actuarial tables, a 60-year-old woman can expect to live to age 84. If this person retired in her 50s, making $60,000 for an average salary the last several years after teaching for 35 years, her total retirement compensation would be over $1 million. Many teachers will be living on their retirement for the same number of years as they worked in the schools.  

Retirees can expect to receive anywhere from 55 percent to 70 percent of their highest average working salary based on number of years worked in the system. For those making $75,000, $85,000 or $100,000, it appears to be very generous.  A small step was made last year requiring teachers to contribute 7 percent to their retirement, up from 5 percent.

The majority of people in our area working in the private sector are not so blessed. Most will not be able to retire at age 55 or have a pension like the one currently available to our teachers. Is it fair to raise the taxes on these workers to make sure the current teacher system keeps operating?

County Commissioner John Barr said he is very concerned about the governor’s plan to dump these retirement costs back on Washington County.  “This is going to cost us $5.5 million and where is it going to come from?” Barr said.  “We don’t want to raise taxes for the county.  This is on top of the $9 million the state has already taken from our county budget each year for the last three years.”

Barr noted that at one time, the benefit package for teachers was a justified incentive when wages were not so good.  Currently, he said, it is hard to make that argument.

On a personal note, my mother retired from the Washington County school system after 45 years of service. which might be the record. I benefitted, at least indirectly, from her pension. In an irony of sorts, it was her pension which enabled her to teach another 18 years after her retirement, helping fund Grace Academy which she founded in 1976. 

I am grateful for the many dedicated teachers and administrators serving in our county.  I have family and friends who are educators in Washington County. Many of us would not want to do or be able to do what our teachers do every day.  

Delegate Serafini has tried to make it clear he is not a “bomb thrower.” 

“I am suggesting changes so that we can live up to our constitutional obligation to present retirees. If the current plan is not sustainable, what will that mean for those who have already retired?” Serafini said.  

The union leadership however sees Serafini as public enemy No. 1. The newspaper account mentioned at least three people who lined up to cast “stones” at our local prophet.  

Sue Esty of AFSCME was quoted as saying that if Delegate Serafini’s proposals were passed, it would mean less money for the teachers. Now there is an astute observation. Fortunately she stopped short of requesting his head be brought to her on a platter. John the Baptist was not so fortunate.


George Michael is a Williamsport resident who writes columns for The Herald-Mail.

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