Baltimore County unions oppose Kamenetz pension bill

Public-employee unions are urging Baltimore County Council members to reject a proposal by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz that would cut pension benefits for some workers, saying it sends a bad message to labor leaders and undermines negotiations.

The legislation, discussed Tuesday by council members, would end the practice of using overtime to calculate retirement benefits for members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The union represents employees in the Department of Public Works, the Department of Recreation and Parks and other agencies.

Only AFSCME members use overtime to calculate their pensions. The practice goes back more than 30 years, and county officials say it is not covered by the union's contract. But AFSCME has threatened to file an unfair-labor-practices complaint, saying the administration is not bargaining in good faith because the issue is the subject of ongoing contract talks.

Leaders of other unions told the council that passing the legislation would damage their relationship with the county.

David Rose, second vice president for the county police union, called the legislation "vindictive.

"If they can't get it through bullying, they try to circumvent the system," Rose said.

The council also heard from leaders of AFSCME, the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, and AFT-Maryland.

If the bill passes, "you send a message to labor that this administration is not going to negotiate in good faith," said Michael Spiller, a staff representative for AFT-Maryland. "On so many levels, this is wrong."

Overtime is mandatory for AFSCME members, said Local 921 President Norman Anderson.

"You have to understand we are the lowest-paid employees," he said. "We are here to plow the snow, to keep the sewers going."

County Budget Director Keith Dorsey said the practice has led to "bizarre results," including instances in which people's pensions are higher than their base salaries. Some AFSCME members also have turned down opportunities to advance to higher positions because they want to keep overtime in their pensions, he said.

Under the bill, overtime earned after April 1 would not count toward the employees' pensions.

For more than five years, the county has tried to negotiate with AFSCME to end the practice, said Chief Administrative Officer Fred Homan.

"We've now come to the point where this [legislation] is essential," Homan said. "We just can't do this anymore."

Union officials said county employees have made many concessions in recent years to ensure the stability of the county's retirement system.

It is not clear how much the county would save annually if the country stops using overtime to calculate AFSCME members' pensions. Last week, the county said it would save more than $500,000, but Dorsey said Tuesday he has revised that figure to $368,000.

The county auditor's office has estimated an annual savings of about $200,000.

County Councilman John Olszewski Sr. plans to introduce an amendment that would delay the bill's effective date to July 1. The Dundalk Democrat said he supports labor unions, but that the county needs to look for savings so it doesn't have to raise taxes, cut services or lay people off. He also said the union's contract does not mention overtime when it comes to pensions.

"I have to look at it from being fiscally responsible," he said. "We want to make sure that we maintain jobs, that we don't lay people off."