Union, officials reach retirement compromise

Deal restores most pension benefits county sought to reduce

May 25, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt and Gina Davis | Laura Barnhardt and Gina Davis,sun reporters

Seeking to end unrest among many county workers, Baltimore County elected officials said yesterday that they had settled a dispute between the government and its employees over retirement benefits.

The council also adopted a $2.5 billion budget that will not require a tax increase. The council members made minor cuts in the spending plan proposed by County Executive James T. Smith Jr.

The retirement issue had become the toughest fiscal decision for the council members in recent weeks. Unions representing county workers were upset about the changes proposed by the county administration, and one of the labor groups had voted against a contract because of the alterations.

Employees and former employees were calling and writing letters to the council members about how the potential cuts in their pensions would affect them.

The compromise will, in setting terms for the pension plan for county workers, restore most of the reductions in retirement benefits that the county executive had proposed.

"It's livable," said Norman Anderson, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 921, which had rejected the county's contract offer. "It's not a win."

"I think the amount of people who took the time to call and show up at the [council meetings] to voice discontent did make a difference," Anderson said.

Under Smith's earlier proposal, civilian workers with fewer than 30 years' service would have had to work until age 65 to receive the pensions they would have been eligible for at age 60 under the previous terms.

"I think we've made the corrections that bring us back to being fair and equitable," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican, adding that he had been prepared to vote against the budget if no retirement deal had been made.

"I was very upset about the way they were treating employees," McIntire said.

No tax increase

The budget, for the fiscal year that begins in July, passed 6-0 with council Chairman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley absent.

The operating budget allows for a 2.4 percent increase in government spending for day-to-day expenses, down from the 3.1 percent increase proposed by Smith.

With no proposed increase in property or income tax rates, officials are counting on increased revenue from rising property assessments. After a small tax cut last year by the council, the property tax rate will remain at $1.10 per $100 of assessed value.

The council also approved a $470 million capital budget that is devoted, in part, to renovating and constructing schools.

Improper enrollment

In his written budget address, Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, said the council continues to be concerned about the costs caused by the fraudulent enrollment of students from outside the county.

Because Moxley was attending his mother's funeral, the message was read by Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder.

School officials said yesterday that they are improving their efforts to reduce the number of noncounty residents improperly enrolled in county schools. The number of residency investigations is up 33 percent and the number of withdrawals for fraudulent enrollments is up 69 percent compared with the previous year, according to a school report.

School officials, based on limits spelled out in the federal Family and Educational Rights and Privacy Act, continue to refuse the county's demand to examine student records for evidence of fraudulent enrollment, spokeswoman Kara Calder said.

Pension changes

Council members said they were pleased to help broker the deal on the retirement changes.

Smith's proposal, in addition to affecting current employees, would have required former employees to wait until age 65 to collect pensions. Under the compromise, former employees can collect pensions at age 60.

The biggest change - and the biggest savings to the county - comes in the rate at which pensions are calculated, which will be lower for employees younger than 60 after July. All new employees' pensions will be calculated at the lower rate, too. And the newer employees will have to wait until age 67 for the retirement benefits.

The council is scheduled to discuss the pension changes for current employees at a June 12 work session, and a vote is scheduled for June 18. The retirement system changes would become effective July 1.

The county will offer the pension revisions to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees if the union ratifies a labor agreement with the county before the June 18 council vote, said Donald I. Mohler III, a county spokesman.

The members would also be able to accept the salary increase they had been offered but were not eligible for when they rejected the contract, Mohler said.

The pension changes proposed by the Smith administration were accepted by the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees and Baltimore County Federation of Public Health Nurses. But they will be able to amend their agreements, Mohler said.

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