Council president proposes police, fire pension changes

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said Tuesday he wants to revisit changes to the police and fire pension plan that have drawn fervent opposition from public safety union members.

Following requests from union leaders, Young said, he wants to hire an independent actuary to analyze the effects of increasing the amortization period — the length of time required to pay obligations to the public safety pension plan — from 20 to 30 years.

"We're already seeing police retirings. We're already seeing a spike in crime with the shootings and the robberies," said Young. "If it's cost-neutral, if it's something sustainable, something the city can really afford, let's look at it."

Union leaders said increasing the amortization period could cut the cost of maintaining the pension plan by up to $70 million, freeing the money to restore other benefits cut when the city overhauled the pension system in June.

The police and firefighters unions are suing the city in federal court over the pension changes, contending that the city willfully underfunded the fund for nearly a decade. The unions plan to file an amendment to the lawsuit — based on the pension changes approved in June — in the next two weeks.

Public safety officers are particularly incensed over an increase in the retirement age and the replacement of a benefit that varies with the market with a fixed cost-of-living increase.

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said extending the payback period would be fiscally irresponsible.

The proposal "is squarely inconsistent with the union leadership complaints about plan underfunding contained in the lawsuit," said spokesman Ryan O'Doherty.

Officials considered lengthening the amortization period when the pension issue was analyzed in the spring, O'Doherty said, but determined that such a course would not be prudent, especially since the fund is underfunded.

But union leaders, who have picketed fundraisers and posted billboards to pressure officials on the issue, were heartened by Young's remarks.

"It was a signal that they may be moving in a certain direction," said Bob Cherry, president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Young surprised union members by proposing that the new plan be altered during a hearing this week on pension plans for new hires.

Fire union president Bob Sledgeski said it appeared that some council members did not understand the pension changes that they approved.

"It was a legislative exercise and had no meaning for them," he said. "If you were to give them a pop quiz on the pension issue, I think most of them would get a "C" at best."

The unions will continue to increase pressure on the council and the Rawlings-Blake administration, he said. About two dozen police and firefighters rallied Tuesday afternoon in front of a billboard denouncing the pension changes.

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