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Retirees, unions criticize Baltimore County pension bill

Laws and LegislationPension and WelfareInterior PolicyLocal Government

Baltimore County retirees and union leaders urged state lawmakers Friday to reject a measure that would limit some public employees' pension benefits, calling it unfair and illegal.

At a Baltimore County House delegation meeting in Annapolis, two retirees said the county is already cheating them out of pension benefits. The bill, requested by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, would let the county continue to exceed state restrictions on how much can be deducted from some people's pensions.

"I need every dollar that I can get in my pension," said Joanne Wachter, who said her benefits are less than $1,000 a month. "Do not let the county take away benefits that I am entitled to."

The legislation centers on benefits paid to county workers who once worked for other governments that did not require employee contributions to their pension systems, as Baltimore County's does.

In Maryland, public employees can transfer service credits from a "non-contributory" pension system to a "contributory" public pension system. But the new employer can also deduct from the person's benefits to make up for the time the worker was not paying into the system.

A 2007 state law specified how much counties can deduct from such employees, but Baltimore County has continued to cut more. The legislation sponsored by Del. Adrienne Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, would increase the amount that could be deducted so the county would comply with state law. Officials say it would save the county $407,000 a year.

Wachter said she joined the county workforce as a utilities clerk after working for the state for several years. She said the county is reducing her pension by $5,000 — more than twice what it should.

The delegation also heard from David Willis, a retired audit manager, who said the county is deducting upward of $10,000 a year more than it should from his $36,000 pension.

Both Wachter and Willis took their pension calculations to the county's Board of Appeals.

County officials say the state law is unfair to public workers who have always paid into their retirement. They also argue that they did not know that state lawmakers were planning to specify the amount they could deduct in the 2007 law.

Representatives of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 67 and the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees also testified against the bill Friday. The county's police union also opposes the bill.

The county firefighters union, though, supports the legislation. Union President Mike Day, who sits on the county's retirement-system board, told the delegation that lower deductions would not be fair to employees who have contributed to the system throughout their careers.

"They are not bringing any money with them," Day said of those who transfer into the system. "We basically are subsidizing individuals who are getting a benefit that was not paid for."

Day said many of the people the legislation would affect aren't rank-and-file employees, but people who are "rolling out with $110,000 pensions and wanting a little bit more on top of it."

The bill's opponents also pointed to legal rulings — such as a 2006 attorney general's opinion requested by the County Council — that say the county has been deducting too much from people's pensions.

In 2008, the Baltimore County Board of Appeals found that the county had incorrectly calculated former county auditor Brian Rowe's pension. A Harford County Circuit Court judge ruled against the county in the case involving Rowe last year. The county has appealed.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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