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Baltimore police and fire unions frustrated by appeals court ruling upholding city’s right to raise retirement age

Leaders of the Baltimore police and fire unions say they are disappointed by a Court of Appeals ruling upholding changes to the city’s pension plan that required first responders to serve an additional five years before being eligible for retirement benefits.

In a ruling this week, Maryland’s highest court acknowledged the difficulties for “employees who have devoted their careers to public service,” but said a city’s dire situation sometimes leaves leaders with little choice but to make hard financial decisions.

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The lawsuit by Baltimore police and firefighters has been winding through the courts since a 2010 City Council decision to change existing laws on when employees can retire and receive pension benefits. The justices agreed with lower court rulings that the city had a right to change pension rules for those who had not yet qualified to retire, but breached the unions’ contract in altering rules for those who had put in enough years to be fully vested.

The Court of Appeals ruling affirmed the lower court’s computation of $31 million in damages to retirees who had already earned their pensions.

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Local police and fire union officials expressed frustration with the decision, calling it the latest blow to morale among the city’s first responders who face staffing shortages amid high call volumes, and other concerns.

“A lot of members who are upset about the ruling, and feel they were cheated and they are very disappointed. There’s already a huge morale problem in this fire department,” said Rich Langford, president of the Baltimore Firefighters Local 734.

The lawsuit came after the city, facing a staggering budget shortfall following the 2008 financial crises, changed its pension plan to require police and firefighters to serve 25 years instead of 20 in order to retire and get benefits.

“[T]he city may have to choose between the lesser of two evils: change the plan without the consent, and to the consternation, of employees who have devoted their careers to public service; or keep the plan as is and put the city deeper into debt, perhaps even risking financial ruin. In 2010, Baltimore City faced this choice,” said the Court of Appeals opinion, written by Judge Jonathan Biran.

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Ultimately, the city ordinance changes “made reasonable and necessary prospective changes,” the opinion said.

Rubin ruled that the city could make modifications to the pension contract that extended the years of service required. But she also ruled that retirees and retirement-eligible police officers and firefighters were entitled to receive a “variable benefit,” an annual increase tied to the stock market, and that they were entitled to seek damages for the lost benefits.

“I’m pleased that they found that there was breach of contract,” said Charles O. Monk II, an attorney for the unions. “I’m disappointed in the way that the trial and the appeals court found the computation of damages.”

He said based on their calculations, he believed the 6,000 beneficiaries, both retirees and spouses, were eligible for millions more, but the court disagreed.

Monk said Monday he is still reviewing the entire ruling, and has not made any decisions about next steps.

The Court of Appeals opinion noted that the changes in the pension plan create a hardship for some employees moving the “goalposts very shortly before they were about to cross the goal line and achieve Service Retirement eligibility. Many of those employees undoubtedly had given the best years of their careers to Baltimore City, serving the public daily in dangerous and stressful jobs.”

The leadership of the unions said the court’s ruling is a disappointment to active members who felt they were cheated by the changes to their contract.

In a letter obtained by The Baltimore Sun, sent to police union members, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 President Sgt. Mike Mancuso said that the more than decade-long litigation was an attempt “to hold the city accountable for what we felt was a breach of contract, but by no means was this the decision we were looking for in terms of the active members and some of the retirees.”

Mancuso wrote that the ruling left open the possibility that the city could continue extending the length of service before retirement.

“As to the active members portion of this suit, the question of the day has been whether or not the city can now raise the retirement years of service to 30 years. The short answer, it appears, is that they can,” Mancuso wrote. “A precedent has now been set. The next question then is why should I stay with the Baltimore Police Department not knowing if the 25-year retirement will be increased to a 30-year retirement at the whim of an already untrustworthy city government.”

The City Solicitor’s Office and Mayor Brandon Scott’s spokesman did respond to requests for comment.

Mancuso wrote the many officers will have to make decisions, including whether to leave for another department.

“I urge you to do what is best for you and your families even if that means joining another department that will treat you with the respect you deserve,” he said.

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