ELKTON — County Executive Alan McCarthy will allow an amended bill establishing a trust to fund pension-like benefits for volunteer firefighters and paramedics to go into law without his signature, averting the chance of the county’s first veto under charter government.
The bill turns the Volunteer Length of Service Award Program (VLOSAP) into a trust fund on Aug. 19 but with several amendments that restrict the county executive’s power to change the trust. The council now has to approve any changes to the trust agreement with legislation, adding onto the original bill’s provisions of a two-thirds vote of the trustees and an executive order.
In a letter sent to Council President Bob Meffley on Thursday morning, McCarthy said he had concerns that the council’s involvement in the future VLOSAP trust “encroaches upon exclusive powers and duties” of the county executive set in the county charter.
But since the council could not amend the trust agreement without the trustees’ approval and an executive order, the overreach was “nominal” and he would not veto the bill.
“This worthy program substantially provides for the health, safety and welfare of our citizens by supporting our fire and ambulance volunteers,” McCarthy wrote to Meffley. “I welcome the Council to stand in unity with me in assuring the financial solvency of VLOSAP and preserving the availability of this benefit well into the future.”
The disagreement between the McCarthy administration and the council was the first glimpse of a behind-the-scenes debate about the council’s power. Weeks ago, the council hired a second attorney to help interpret the charter, since much of the charter outlines the authority to the “county,” but doesn’t specify whether that refers to the executive branch, legislative branch or both.
The council, advised by both attorneys, amended the VLOSAP bill to give it some oversight of the trust, despite County Attorney Jason Allison, who represents the executive branch, warning that it could be taken to court since it overstepped the council’s legal authority.
McCarthy later told the Whig that he felt it would be inappropriate to “make a stand on this,” however, when the 260 eligible volunteers would be left without a sound pension. A veto would affect the entire bill rather than only the amendments, and taking it to court would delay its establishment even longer.
“Keep in mind this is to create a trust for firefighters. If this was bound up in court, it wouldn’t be in [the firefighters] best interest at all,” he said Thursday morning. “I have no reason to take the county’s money — the citizen’s money — and deal with this in court. I’m here to do good, not to gum it up.”
Meffley was satisfied that McCarthy had allowed the amended bill to pass rather than vetoing it. If he had, the council appeared confident last week that it had the votes to overturn it.
“We don’t want to amend the trust. We want nothing to do with the funds, or amending the trust,” Meffley told the Whig Thursday. “This is just a safety net for who comes after me and [McCarthy].”
He pointed out that as the bill was originally drafted, it gave the county executive unilateral power to make sweeping changes to the trust, including terminating it or rewriting who could be a trustee. The vote of two-thirds of the trustees was the only check against it.
Other amendments set an ex-officio council representative on the board of trustees and negated the county executive’s ability to remove them.
On the question of whether the amended bill was an overreach of powers, Meffley said that this process has been an exercise of charter government.
“As far as I’m concerned, we’re doing exactly what we’re here for. It’s a system of checks and balances,” he said. “All we did was clear this up once we heard concerns from our constituents, the fire companies. It’s safeguarding this for future firefighters and paramedics.”
Unlike previous council presidents under charter, Meffley has shown himself more willing to start to oppose the actions and proposals of the administration. But he told the Whig that despite the council searching for legal boundaries of its power, the VLOSAP bill did not symbolize a changing tide with county government.
“This is not the start of a war,” he said. “I want to work with the administration to make it easier for the guy after me. The county executive and the administration have what it takes to move the county on the right course under the charter. There’s just some potholes here and there. Some areas need to be tweaked.”
McCarthy once again reiterated that he had no problems with the council, and did not see this as a start of contention with the council.
“This truly did take a life on its own. I proposed this to have a sound benefit for firefighters and paramedics, and I hope that the council can unify with me to make this sound for the future. It’s time to put this behind us and move forward,” he said.
When the VLOSAP trust fund is established, the county will end its pay-as-you-go policy to pay out eligible firefighters and paramedics. Instead, the beneficiaries will be eventually paid through investments and future funding will depend on actuarial reports.
With extra money set aside during Fiscal Year 2019 and money moved from the fund balance, the VLOSAP trust will start with roughly $700,000.