County Executive Kevin Kamenetz

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz (File photo / Patuxent Publishing / November 13, 2012)

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is drawing criticism for refusing to repay hundreds of police retirees who a judge found were overcharged for their health insurance.

Last month, a county circuit judge gave the county 20 days to pay about $573,000 to more than 400 retired Police Department employees. The county has not done so and plans to continue to fight the order, officials said Friday.

Councilwoman Vicki Almond says the county is acting as if it is "above the law."

"It's unfair to our constituents," said Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat. "It's not good government. ... I'm a bit outraged."

Councilman Kenneth Oliver agreed that the county should pay.

"The county should obey the law," the Randallstown Democrat said.

The dispute between the county and the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4 began more than five years ago. The union contended that the county violated the police contract in 2007 when it shifted more health care costs to officers who retired between 1992 and 2007. The case eventually reached the state's highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals, which ruled in the union's favor last year.

The county's continued refusal to comply led to last month's ruling by Circuit Judge Michael J. Finifter, who ordered the county to pay the retirees, plus interest. The county is again fighting the outcome, submitting a motion in an attempt to have the court reverse Finifter's decision. Among other arguments, the county's lawyers say that only the County Council can appropriate money, and that it is unconstitutional for a court to order the council to do so.

Kamenetz, a Democrat, stood by his administration's decision Friday, saying he's trying to save taxpayers money and blaming the police union for refusing to compromise on the county's plan to cut health care and pension costs.

"Unfortunately, while the other labor groups have all accepted the provisions, the police [union] chooses not to," Kamenetz said. "Our goal in Baltimore County government is to ensure that our employees have sustainable pensions and health care in retirement, but it has to be affordable to the taxpayers. The police employees are no different."

The union says it has a binding contract with the county, which the administration is choosing to violate.

David Rose, second vice president of the union, said the county has sought to "fight cases on multiple levels," not only with this lawsuit but others.

"I think it's counterproductive because I'd like to get everyone in a room and settle these cases," Rose said. "They have continued to not prevail. Their positions, quite frankly, have been unsuccessful on a regular basis."

The county contends that its Health Care Review Committee, made up of labor representatives and others, negotiated the cost shift. The union said it never agreed to the cost shifts for employees who retired under the old contract, and the courts agreed.

Almond said the council's lawyers have told her the council cannot introduce legislation to make the county pay. She said she is especially concerned about the county's legal tactics in light of a number of other lawsuits the county has faced over employment issues. In recent months, the county has settled lawsuits with a county laborer, two former firefighters and a former police officer who alleged that they had been forced out of their jobs for medical reasons. The settlements have totaled more than $1 million.

In 2012, Baltimore County reached a $500,000 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which alleged that the county had engaged in a pattern of employment discrimination, mostly on the basis of medical conditions.

"We're wasting taxpayer money. We're using our lawyers' time," Almond said. "We're tying up the court system."

Last week, the union filed a petition to hold Kamenetz and his budget director, Keith Dorsey, in contempt of court. County Attorney Mike Field said the administration still has about a week to file its response and will request a hearing.

Kamenetz called the union petition "a scurrilous pleading designed to grandstand as opposed to focusing on the legal issue at hand."

Councilman David Marksa Perry Hall Republican, questioned the financial wisdom of continuing the legal fight.

"I think there is some concern about the mounting expenses of these cases, particularly when the county has done such a good job of curtailing costs in other areas," Marks said. "This is an area that seems to stick out."

"I'm always interested in hearing the administration's perspective," Marks said, "but I do think a court decision is something very serious that we need to consider."

Council Chairman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, said he would "reserve judgment" because the case is pending in court.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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