The wrong reform for city police and fire pensions

With legislation in the hands of City Council to determine the fate of the Fire and Police Employees' Retirement System, your Baltimore City public safety personnel continue to serve and protect while their futures are in limbo. The bill includes some reasonable solutions to fix the underfunded pension but also incorporates egregious changes to the member contract.

For example, the legislation stipulates that any current member with less than 15 years of service must now work 25 years instead of 20 to be eligible for benefits. The inclusion in the bill to extend years of service not only breaks the city's contractual obligation to pension system members, but it may also result in a mass exodus of firefighters and police officers. Although some council members such as Mary Pat Clarke acknowledge this as a flaw within the bill, Councilwoman Helen Holton has refused to budge on this matter or consider this requirement for new pension system members hired after July 1, 2010.

Ms. Holton, who serves as the chair of the Taxation and Finance Committee, has attempted to portray the new version of the pension reform legislation as a compromise to its predecessor, but in reality they are simply different versions of the same bill. Like the old bill, the current version continues to violate the city's contractual obligations to pension system members. Clearly, the City Council is using the underfunded pension as an excuse to make fundamental changes to the entire system. This Wild West approach to city budgeting and planning illustrates the bigger issue — a historic and wearisome disregard by city legislators for the financial health of Baltimore City.

On June 7, Ms. Holton told us that the "bottom line" is what really matters. Fire and police union leadership have attempted to submit amendments to the bill that would save $20 million more over the next five years without breaking any contractual obligations to pension system members, but Ms. Holton and her committee chose to ignore them because of political jockeying. Unfortunately, it seems her commitment to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to pass the legislation without any amendments is stronger than her commitment to the bottom line. As a result, the unions have had little opportunity to present their amendments, and council members have had equally as little time to analyze and discuss the legislation's details.

We continue to carry around versions of pension reform bills in our briefcases and continue to request compromise and negotiation during the budgeting process but are continually met with disregard. As we have said many times, we want to be part of the solution and want the financial fitness of Baltimore to improve. What we do not want is to lose the core of our membership and the soul of this great city's public safety force. There are many ways to enact pension reform, but the legislation the council is considering is the wrong way.

Robert F. Cherry Jr. and Robert Sledgeski, Baltimore

The writers are presidents of the Baltimore City lodges of the Fraternal Order of Police and International Association of Firefighters.

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