Council Tables Controversial Pension Bill
Council members said concerns over unanswered questions and passing a law affecting ongoing labor negotiations drove their decision.
UPDATED (9:40 p.m.)— The Baltimore County Council Monday night tabled a controversial bill that sought to end the practice of counting overtime toward the pension benefits of 834 county employees.
After the vote, Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond described the vote as one of the most difficult she’s been asked to take since taking office in December 2010.
Almond said she and many of her colleagues were concerned about being asked to deal with the issue while the county negotiates a new contract with the union.
“I’m not sure it’s our role to be in the middle of this,” said Almond. “These are important issues but it’s stuff others are meant to take care of. This is not our job.”
Currently, about 834 employees represented the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union are allowed to use their overtime to increase the size of their final pension benefits. The employees—most of whom are vehicle maintenance workers, snow plow drivers and sewer maintenance workers—pay into the pension system based on their overtime.
The practice, which is not law, affects only employees represented by AFSCME and dates back three decades, according to Keith Dorsey, director of the county Office of Budget and Finance.
The problem, however, stems from the fact that those overtime payments are not consistent year to year but result in an increase in an employee's base pay, on which the final pension benefit is based.
"It's has brought bizarre results," Dorsey said of the policy during testimony before the council last Tuesday.
Dorsey said some employees could receive retirement benefits that are based on a calculation higher than their actual base salary. One current employee with the county could be paid a pension based on $62,000 in average compensation based on overtime payments even though his actual salary is $4,000 lower.
Passage of the bill would save the county nearly $370,000 annually, Dorsey said.
But Almond and Councilmen Ken Oliver and Tom Quirk, Democrats from Randallstown and Catonsville respectively, and Perry Hall Republican David Marks peppered Dorsey and County Administrative Officer Fred Homan with questions about the savings and how they were calculated
Almond pointed out afterwards that most of the questions regarding the cost savings went unanswered.
“These are things we need to know,” said Almond.
Not everyone on the council agreed with the vote to table the bill.
Bevins, an Oliver Beach Democrat, called the pension benefit “ridiculous” and said she hoped the council would have dealt with the issue Monday night.
“I thought it was something we needed to deal with,” said Bevins.
Huff, a Timonium Republican, agreed.
“I would have liked to put this issue to bed tonight. I wanted it over and done with,” said Huff, adding that he hoped the administration would be able to answer the council’s questions and “bring the bill back quickly.”
He declined to say if that meant the administration might attempt to bring the bill back over the summer once negotiations are concluded or an impasse is declared.
Norm Anderson, president of the county AFSCME chapter, was not immediately available for comment after the vote.
A number of unions including the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4 joined with affected union members to oppose the bill last week.
More than five-dozen union members and affected workers marched outside the Old Courthouse in Towson and chanted "Negotiate don't legislate."
John Ripley, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, a union that opposed the bill, said he was “pleased with the courage and vision of the council.” The union leader said the county should continue to seek a resolution at the bargaining table with the affected union.
He added that county officials had lost the moral high ground to negotiate on the issue because of a pension arrangement that allows Kamenetz and former Councilmen Vince Gardina and Sam Moxley to opt into a pension loophole to defer their council pensions and remain in the county pension system while earning credit for their new jobs. All three voted for a bill creating the loophole prior to the 2010 election.
In other council news:
• The seven member council unanimously approved a bill updating the Honeygo Overlay District in Perry Hall.
The bill, which takes effect in May,essentially allows for the creation of larger front yards for new homes in the district by changing the setback requirements for garages. The change stemmed from a work group formed by Councilman David Marks and had the support of the Perry Hall Improvement Association and the Home Builders Association of Maryland.
The standards for the district were first passed in 1994 by then Councilman Vince Gardina.
• The council honored Natalie Phyall, a 10-year-old student in the 4th grade at Villa Cresta Elementary. Phyall received a council citation for performing the Heimlich maneuver on March 9 on a friend who was choking during lunch at the school. (Read more about Natalie and see her talk about her experience.)
• The council did not take up a vote to confirm the appointment of Roland Campbell to the Baltimore County Revenue Authority board.
Campbell is president and chief executive officer of ROC Realty Group. He is also the former chairman of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce and past president of the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce.
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced his appointment Monday morning. Campbell would replace Joseph Blair, who's term expired last June.
If confirmed, Campbell would become the first African-American to serve on the five-member board in nearly six years.