Police, firefighters are part of pension solution

May 26, 2010

The editorial "Pension time bomb" (May 24) made a number of salient points and gave the current Baltimore police and fire pension issue the attention it deserves. As the leadership of the Baltimore City fire and police labor organizations, we would like to offer a few facts in response to some of the issues raised.

We want it to be known that police and fire have continuously come to the table in an effort to reach a workable solution. In March 2009, we presented a proposal to City Council that offered recommendations to address the mounting pension fund deficit. Under then-President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, the City Council refused to act on our proposal and is now, 14 months later, representing the current situation as a sudden, unexpected crisis. The underfunding of the Fire and Police Employees' Pension System is better described as a prolonged decline that occurred while city legislators willingly turned a blind eye to this growing problem.

The current pension structure is unsustainable because the city has failed to properly fund it for 10 years. The city's decade-long history of conscious decisions to not follow the actuary's recommendations for pension contributions has resulted in the current state of affairs. If we are to confront the city's deliberate and poor decision-making, we must hold the city accountable for its chronic underfunding of the pension system and require that legislators look for solutions that do not further penalize police and fire employees for the council's wrongdoings.

In response to the statement that "workers should recognize the role the variable benefit plays in the problem," we want to be clear that we share concerns with this provision. Our latest proposal includes changes in the variable benefit for all participants, not just new hires as stated in the editorial. We also want to point out that unlike citizens and public safety employees in other jurisdictions, our members are not eligible for Social Security benefits. As a result, the pension system is their only means of retirement and disability funding. It is important to note that full retirement benefits means 50 percent of pay based on the employee's average salary for the last 18 months of work and is not one's full salary. Lastly, we want the citizens of Baltimore to know that our latest proposal would result in an immediate savings of $65 million for the city, as well as additional long-term savings.

While looking inward to seek sound solutions to repair the ailing pension system, we must ensure our fire and police employees leave their careers of public safety service with a secure and dignified pension benefit. The city is contractually obligated by law to fund and provide a retirement benefit to your firefighters and police. More importantly, however, the city has a moral obligation to uphold its commitment to those who serve and protect the citizens. The Baltimore City fire and police labor organizations are willing and able to not only offer solutions to fix the pension system but to implement these solutions. We ask the city of Baltimore to join us and become part of the solution.

Robert F. Cherry Jr. and Robert Sledgeski, Baltimore.

The writers are president of the Baltimore police and fire unions.

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