A union that represents hundreds of public workers in Baltimore County is threatening to file an unfair labor practices complaint against the county, saying a pension bill introduced by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz attempts to sidestep ongoing contract negotiations.

The bill, pending before the County Council, would end the practice of using overtime wages to calculate pension benefits for members of AFSCME, whose members include laborers in the Department of Public Works and other agencies. Under the legislation, overtime earned after April 1 would not count toward the salary reflected in employee pensions.

"It is a topic that we are negotiating right now," said staff representative Ryan Genovese of AFSCME Council 67. "This may be a sign that they are not bargaining in good faith, that they are trying to do this through the [County] Council."

Neither side could say when exactly the practice started, but it has been in place for several decades. Members of other unions in the county do not use overtime in pension calculations.

In a statement, the Kamenetz administration called the legislation an attempt to save taxpayer dollars and "eliminate an arbitrary perk that sweetens pension benefits for a single class of employees." They said it would save $502,000 a year.

The compensation that determines some employees' pensions is almost double their base salaries because of overtime, Kamenetz administration officials said. For instance, one employee whose base salary is $43,326 earned $84,172 with overtime. That boosted his annual pension from $23,633 to $47,438.

"We need to fix this quirk in the pension system immediately," county Budget Director Keith Dorsey said in the statement. "We want all of our employees to know that the benefits will be there when they retire, and we want our taxpayers to know that we are fairly and sensibly managing these pension funds."

Genovese said the county has tried to eliminate the practice in the past during negotiations, and union members rejected the proposal. He said the county officials are now "going outside the negotiation process to achieve their aim."

"This isn't really a pension issue," Genovese said. "It's a labor-relations issue."

The county says that the issue is not covered by the workers' contract. But Genovese said that "since they are trying to put it into our contract, they clearly think that our contract governs this."

The council is scheduled to discuss the bill at its work session March 13.

While the legislation would not affect members of other unions, the head of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees said his organization would stand by AFSCME.

"I certainly think that [the county is] trying to undermine negotiations, good-faith negotiations," said BCFPE president John Ripley.

Cole Weston, president of the county police union, had similar thoughts.

"I think it's a terrible piece of legislation," Weston said, adding that such that such issues should be dealt with through collective bargaining, not through the County Council.

The Kamenetz administration is also seeking state legislation to limit pension benefits for county workers who previously worked for other local governments. Kamenetz has drawn fire for his own pension. He is banking retirement benefits from his previous position as a county councilman, and also earning new benefits from his current position.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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