The Baltimore City Council gave final approval Monday night to a proposal to cut the number of years required for its members and other city officials to earn a pension, faulting a charter amendment establishing term limits that was overwhelmingly approved by voters this month.
The pension legislation, introduced by Council President Nick Mosby, calls for Baltimore to offer pensions to city officials after eight years of service. Currently, the requirement is 12.
The council approved the measure by an 8-5 vote with two abstentions, sending it to the desk of Mayor Brandon Scott over objections of city finance and retirement officials who warned the reduction could cost the city in the long run and potentially leave the pension plan underfunded.
Scott has not yet weighed in publicly on the proposal. He has until January to consider whether to sign or veto the measure.
A late attempt to amend the measure made by Councilwoman Odette Ramos failed after Mosby declined to allow its introduction because he said the roll call vote was already underway. Ramos, who voted in favor of the measure during a previous meeting, voted no Monday as did Councilwoman Phylicia Porter and Councilmen Zeke Cohen, Ryan Dorsey and James Torrence. Councilmen Mark Conway and Eric Costello abstained from the vote.
Cohen wrote a public letter to his colleagues Monday urging them to vote against the measure.
“I’m concerned this sends the wrong message to the communities that we serve,” he said.
When the full council first considered the legislation two weeks ago, Mosby called it a “companion bill” to Question K, a proposed charter amendment that appeared on ballots this fall asking voters to establish term limits for the city’s mayor, comptroller and City Council members. The amendment, which passed with the approval of 72% of voters, will limit officials to two four-year terms in each office.
The movement to get the question onto the ballot was funded almost entirely by a $525,000 investment from David Smith, chairman of Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast Group. The group owns local station Fox 45, a frequent critic of top officials inside City Hall.
The committee Smith funded held a news conference Monday morning in front of City Hall ahead of the vote condemning the “brazen greed, corruption and self-serving action” taken by the council. The group called on Scott to veto the measure and threatened to push a future ballot measure eliminating the pensions altogether if it becomes law.
Supporters of term limits yelled out in council chambers after the vote Monday, yelling “selfish money grab” and “shame, shame” before they were removed from the room.
The term limits will not be effective until 2024, and time already served by sitting officials will not count toward the limit.
The pension legislation, however, would boost the eligibility of sitting officials. The shortened vesting period would be offered to any officials who have been in office since Dec. 1, 2022.
In a letter to the council, David Randall, executive director of the Baltimore Employees’ and Elected Officials’ Retirement Systems, said the proposal before the group was unconventional.
“While it may not be unconstitutional, it is highly unusual for elected officials to enhance their benefits while in term,” he wrote.
The amendment Ramos hoped to introduce would have allowed eight-year vesting but would have begun the program with officials elected after 2024, the next election cycle for city officials.
City finance and retirement officials pleaded with the council to wait to pass the bill, arguing a full financial analysis should be performed first. The pension plan, which is currently fully funded, paid out about $1.5 million in fiscal year 2022 to 31 retired officials and beneficiaries.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Porter, who voted in favor of the pension change in committee, abstained on second reader and voted no Monday, said the constituents of her district told her “resoundingly” they wanted her to vote against the bill. She noted that police, firefighters and teachers must serve longer tenures to become vested.
“It’s just something I morally could not stand for based on my philosophies,” she said.
Baltimore’s elected official retirement plan has two tiers of benefits: one for officials who were elected before December 2016 and one for those elected after. Officials elected before 2016 receive 2.5% multiplied by their years of service and their annual salary of their highest position held.
Officials elected after 2016 receive a pension based on the same formula, but it is capped at 60% of their compensation at the time of retirement.
Currently, the mayor is paid $189,044. Both the comptroller and City Council president make $131,798. Council members are paid $73,966.
There are also built-in increases. After two years of receiving benefits, officials elected before 2016 receive an increase tied to the current compensation of the position held before they retired. An official who retired as the city’s mayor, for example, would receive an increase at the same rate as the current mayor.
Officials elected after 2016 are capped at a 1.5% increase until age 65 and 2% thereafter, but they have to wait only one year for the increases to begin.