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Baltimore County Council attorney questions whether officials' pension deals can be revoked

As a Baltimore County Council member seeks to repeal a policy that allows the county executive and other high-ranking officials to collect lucrative pension benefits, the council’s attorney is warning that it might not be legal to take the benefits back.

Councilwoman Vicki Almond introduced a bill Monday that would overturn a 2010 law that allows several former council members — including County Executive Kevin Kamenetz — to earn two pensions and receive a lump-sum payment when they leave county employment.

The arrangement has been criticized as “double-dipping.”

But in a memo to the council chairman, council legislative counsel and secretary Tom Peddicord said he had advised Almond not to make the bill retroactive. Peddicord wrote that the county employees receiving the benefits appear to have met the requirements of the policy, and “have vested rights in the accrued benefits.”

“The law in Maryland appears to give persons who have legitimately fulfilled the contractual commitments of a pension plan the most protection,” Peddicord wrote.

County Attorney Mike Field, who is appointed by the county executive and represents county government in legal matters, told The Baltimore Sun he agrees with Peddicord’s assessment.

Almond said her legislation “speaks for itself.”

My position on this is clear,” the Reisterstown Democrat said in a statement. “I look forward to working on this issue with my colleagues in the coming weeks."

A vote on her measure is scheduled for September. Almond is considering a run for county executive next year.

Kamenetz, also a Democrat, stands to receive $118,000 annually from two pensions he accrued — one from his four terms as a council member and another from his two terms as county executive — plus a $384,000 payout when he leaves office, money from his council pension that he banked while serving as executive.

Former council members Vince Gardina, now the county’s environment director, and Sam Moxley, a top aide to Kamenetz, are also eligible to earn two pensions and receive lump-sum payments when they leave county employment.

Kamenetz, Gardina and Moxley were members of the council that in 2010 approved the provision that would eventually allow them to receive the enhanced pension benefits. The provision was an amendment to legislation that reduced county worker benefits in an effort to shore up the retirement system.

County permits and inspections director Arnold Jablon is also banking pension benefits from a previous county job under the policy while drawing a county paycheck, but is not eligible for a a second pension.

More than 30 other county employees — mostly retired police now working in part-time positions — are allowed to receive a pension and paycheck at the same time, but won’t get a lump-sum payout.

University of Baltimore law professor Michael Hayes focuses on employment and labor law. If the county enacts Almond’s legislation, he said, “it’s very likely someone will call a lawyer.”

“I would imagine somebody, unless they thought it was politically unwise, will sue to overturn it,” Hayes said.

But he said it’s “anyone’s guess” how the courts could rule.

“There’s just not a lot of precedent on this,” Hayes said.

In 2010, police and firefighter unions in Baltimore sued then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the City Council over cuts to existing benefits. The litigation is still ongoing.

Peddicord wrote his memo in response to a question from Council Chairman Tom Quirk about whether the council could lawfully change pension benefits retroactively.

Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, said he believes in the ideas behind Almond’s measure, but has concerns it would be unlawful to rescind retirement benefits already on the books.

“Going forward, I think pension parity makes sense,” Quirk said. He said everyone from “the average Baltimore County employee all the way up ot the highest level of government” should be under the same pension policies.

Quirk has introduced a bill that he said would ensure the county can continue to hire retirees for part-time public safety jobs without allowing them to accrue new retirement benefits. Quirk said that Almond’s bill could have “unintended consequences” for those people.

“We’re getting experienced people that aren’t costing us a lot of money because they’re not going to add to the pension liability,” he said.

Kamenetz has not commented on the Almond proposal. Spokeswoman Stacie Burgess said in a statement the county executive “respects the legislative process and will carefully review any bill that is passed by the Council.”

An earlier version misstated the amount Kevin Kamenetz is set to receive when he leaves office. The Sun regrets the error.

alisonk@baltsun.com

twitter.com/aliknez

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