Baltimore Firefighters Fight Pension Reform


Baltimore city police and firefighters are putting millions of dollars into a fund to fight the effort to reform their pensions.

The unions are threatening to sue to fight the change.

The pension reform bill currently before the Baltimore City Council would, among other things, require police and firefighters to work longer to be eligible to retire.

They can currently retire with 20 years service under their belts regardless of their age, meaning some can collect pension benefits longer than they were on the payroll. The proposed bill would impose a minimum retirement age of 55.

The firefighters union called the plan a nonstarter.

"The (retirement age) issue is the biggest issue in the bill that we're opposed to," said Local 734 Union President Bob Sledgeski.

To fight the reform effort, city police, firefighters and retirees are building a $2.6 million legal fund to pay for a possible lawsuit in federal court. They're paying $10 out of their paychecks every two weeks for the next year, I-Team lead investigative reporter Jayne Miller said.

"It's always better to negotiate a settlement than go to court, but at the same time, people in City Hall can't use their position to threaten us and say, 'We're going to do what we're going to do,'" Sledgeski said.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that without pension reform, the city's deficit of $21 million will balloon by another $65 million. The budget deadline is June 30.

"While I understand that there's money set aside for the fight against efforts to reform the pension, the pension is only retirement on paper if the city doesn't have the money to back it up. Right now, if we don't reform the system as it stands, it's not sustainable," Rawlings-Blake said.

The cost of a court battle is one issue in the fight. The other is whether it is really worth going to court, Miller reported.

The unions argue that any such change to their existing contract would violate the constitution, but suing is one thing and winning is another.

"That constitutional doctrine is so riddled with so many exceptions that they threaten to swallow the basic rule. We would have tremendous hurdles to overcome just to get the matter to court," said a lawyer for police retirees in a current newsletter.

The reform proposal would also have police and firefighters paying more for their retirement. That has not been decided.

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