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Balto. Co. is seeking to make retirement benefits sustainable

Several years ago, Baltimore County government realized that the runaway costs of employee health care and pension benefits needed to be reined in or our taxpayers would be stuck with a huge bill to pay. The county remains committed to providing quality health care to its employees and retirees, including family benefits with low deductibles. However, in order to control rising health care costs, the county decided that each employee should pay the same cost for health care as every other employee and retiree.

A Health Care Review Committee comprised of union representatives was established, giving each bargaining group an equal seat at the table to negotiate uniform health care benefits for all employees. The committee selects the type of health care plans that are offered, as well as the equal cost that each employee would share. The County Code mandates that the committee is the official bargaining group for health care costs of every county employee.

The rationale for utilizing the committee to bargain health care benefits on behalf of all Baltimore County employees is simple: government can't have each group of employees receiving different health care plans, at different costs. You shouldn't have one set of costs for truck drivers, another for clerical workers, another for police officers and so forth. It would be unfair, and it just doesn't address management of the rising costs of health care in an equitable manner.

Notwithstanding a 2007 vote by the committee establishing updated health care costs, the union representing police officers chose to fight the process, arguing that a group of its retirees should pay a lesser amount than every other current and retired county employee.

In a case that has bounced around the courts for five years with no final judgment, the county continues to defend the fairness of this process. Baltimore County is awaiting a decision on a motion to alter or amend the last court ruling, and we intend to fully pursue all legal avenues to defend the interests of our taxpayers. We believe that every employee and retiree should equally bear the burden of rising health care costs. (At the present time, Baltimore County taxpayers pay 80 percent of our employee and retiree health care premiums, and 90 percent for those who select HMO coverage).

We continue to litigate this case in court because, while our police officers are dedicated public servants, we do not believe, as the union does, that some of their retirees should pay an even lesser health care premium than every other Baltimore County employee and retiree.

Baltimore County is committed to ensuring that our hard working employees receive their promised benefits when they retire. But we will not allow the full cost of those benefits to be paid by the taxpayers. Detroit filed bankruptcy in part due to its failure to rein in runaway retirement benefits. I will never let Baltimore County face similar problems. That means from time to time I will have to make decisions that may not be popular with everyone, but that is what true leadership is all about.

During this economic downturn, Baltimore County was the only major jurisdiction in this state to avoid any furloughs or firings of its employees while still granting step and longevity pay increases. Recently we have extended agreements with a number of our labor groups through 2016, including provisions for bonuses and COLAs. We are optimistic about reaching agreement with the remaining groups. Our retirees haven't missed one pension check and continue to qualify for quality health care.

We are making tough choices in Baltimore County. That has allowed us to avoid raising the property tax rate for 25 years — a quarter of a century — or income tax rates for 21 years. That's why we have a AAA bond rating from all three major rating agencies, saving taxpayers millions of dollars in borrowing costs. Just 39 out of more than 3,000 counties in the country earn such recognition.

We will continue to manage Baltimore County in a fiscally responsible manner that is the envy of governments all across the nation. It is what our outstanding employees deserve, and it is what our taxpayers expect.

Kevin Kamenetz is the Baltimore County executive. His email is kkamenetz@baltimorecountymd.gov.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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