Court fight looms for fire, police pensions

March 18, 2010|By Julie Scharper | julie.scharper@baltsun.com

Baltimore's fire and police unions and the city are headed toward a legal battle over plans to alter the troubled public safety pension system, which threatens to deepen the already cash-strapped city's financial crisis.

Both sides have retained private attorneys to tackle the issue, which would cost the city an additional $65 million if it is not resolved by the beginning of the budget year July 1.

Last month, a committee led by Greater Baltimore Committee President Donald Fry presented recommendations that could save the city as much as $80 million. The proposals included increasing member contributions, raising the retirement age and replacing a variable benefit - which jumps during good financial years and stays high during bad - with a set cost-of-living increase.

More than 700 police officers met at the Fraternal Order of Police lodge earlier this week for a heated meeting on the proposals, union President Robert F. Cherry said.

While most union members are open to many of the suggestions, they "adamantly oppose" postponing the retirement age, Cherry said. The plan, known as "the rule of 75," would mean that officers would only be eligible for retirement when their age and years of service total 75.

To implement the rule for new hires would make the department less attractive to recruits, and to impose it on current members would violate the union contract, he said.

The unions have retained the services of the Saul Ewing legal firm to represent them in the pension fight, he said.

Meanwhile, the city has taken the unusual step of securing the services of a private attorney as well. James P. Ulwick of Kramon & Graham was contracted by the city this week, said City Solicitor George Nilson. The city contracts with private attorneys when the "magnitude of a case is unusual," he said. "Obviously, the stakes are pretty high."

Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake said she planned to have a pension bill ready by the April 12 City Council meeting. The details of the bill will not be released until council members had been briefed, she said.

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