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County workers, unions decry benefit shift

The Baltimore Sun

County workers and the leaders of two of their unions packed a Baltimore County Council meeting yesterday to denounce a proposed change in retirement benefits, days before a deadline for the unions to sign labor contracts.

Much of the criticism centered on the administration's proposal to force current employees with less than 30 years' service to work until age 65, rather than 60, to receive full retirement benefits. County officials say the change is needed to head off a financial crisis in coming years as more and more employees retire.

Karen Weber, a county employee, said she and her colleagues have "for years been neglected."

"And yet we have the audacity to point our fingers at Wal-Mart for doing the same thing," she told the councilmen.

Most of the 10 people who spoke before the council belong to the Baltimore County chapter of the Federation of Public Employees and the county Federation of Public Health Nurses, which represent a combined 1,800 employees.

The county administration has imposed a deadline of Thursday for the unions to sign a labor deal, saying the law requires a budget be submitted to the council Monday and officials need time to print copies of the spending plan. The county's labor commissioner has said that without an agreement, employees from those unions would not get pay raises outlined in the proposal.

The only person to speak in favor of the proposed changes yesterday was Jim Clark, former president of the county FPE.

He complained that union leaders should give members an opportunity to vote on the proposal. "Most of us inside the walls of the detention center see this as an opportunity to close the gap between detention center employees" and other county workers, Clark said. "Not everybody's on the same page here."

But Graham Boyanich, a member of the FPE's negotiating committee, said the county's proposal lacks "parity."

Holding up a copy of a newspaper article about Thursday's deadline, Boyanich deplored what he called threats by county officials.

"I implore you to stop them from using strong-arm tactics," he told the council.

Carol Allen of Parkville said that the county Web site lists a number of job openings for her department. "It appears we may already be failing to attract employees to Baltimore County," she said. "What happens when the age is raised to 65?"

"I'm going to be older than my clients," added Pat Smidt, who identified herself as a county health care worker. "Why would you change the rules in the middle of the game?"

Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr., a second-term Democrat, said the county's offer to the unions took months to devise and that it's a good deal for employees.

"They know, if they put it to a vote, it would pass," Mohler said of union leaders.

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat, said after the meeting that the proposed changes concerned him because employees would be subject to retirement changes in the middle of their careers.

But Councilman John A. Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, said the council has little, if any, authority to alter labor contracts.

Also yesterday, the council passed a nonbinding resolution that calls for its members to abstain from holding fundraisers during the county's Comprehensive Zoning Map Process, a once-every-four-year process in which members consider requests to change zoning of properties. The measure passed unanimously.

Gardina said he decided to vote for the resolution after a councilman pointed out to him that it might be hard to keep track of people who have interests in properties being zoned.

The council also approved the renewal of a contract that pays a company up to $300 an hour to advise the county on bond deals. Public Resources Advisory Group of New York will receive up to $1.7 million over the next 11 years. County officials say the firm will help the county maintain its AAA bond rating.

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