Judge: Unions Must Use Different Argument If They Want To Overturn Baltimore Reforms


After several years and numerous legal battles, a federal judge today affirmed that a series of pension reforms enacted by Baltimore in 2010 were constitutional.

But the judge, Barbara Milano Keenan of 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, left the door open for unions to again challenge the reforms. This time, unions will have to bring a different legal argument to the table.

Quick context: In 2010, Baltimore overhauled its police and fire pension systems and implemented reforms—higher employee contributions, higher retirement ages and lower COLAs—which were projected to save the city $64 million annually. Details from the Baltimore Sun:

Under the mayor’s plan, firefighters and police have been required to increase contributions to the pension fund — now 10 percent of their salaries. Many officers were told that they would no longer be able to retire after 20 years, but would have to stay on the force for 25 years to receive their pensions. Retired workers also lost what was called the “variable benefit,” an annual increase tied to the stock market. Instead, the youngest retirees receive no annual increase through the variable benefit, and older retirees receive a 1 percent or 2 percent annual increase.

The bolded section is key. The first legal challenge against the reforms centered around the decrease in COLAs. Unions argued that the change was illegal because Maryland, like many states, treats pension benefits as contracts that cannot be impaired.

Most states sidestep the contract issue by applying reforms to new hires only. But Baltimore had decreased COLAs for retirees as well.

So, in 2012, a District Court ruled the change illegal, saying “elimination of the variable benefit constituted a substantial impairment of certain members’ contract rights, and that the impairment was not reasonable and necessary to serve an important public purpose.”

The ruling today overturned the District Court’s decision and re-instated the COLA decreases. The logic behind the ruling, from Reuters:

The appeals court said the reform was a “mere breach of contract, not rising to the level of a constitutional impairment or obligation.”

It also dismissed the notion that allowing the reform to go through would give a city “unfettered discretion to breach its contracts with public employees,” because of protections in Maryland law.

“This contention lacks merit because, under Maryland law, the city is only permitted to make reasonable modifications to its pension plans,” wrote Keenan. “Any reduction in benefits ‘must be balanced by other benefits or justified by countervailing equities for the public’s welfare.’”

But the judge said unions could change their argument, and they might have another shot at overturning the legality of the reforms in court.

Judge Keenan said that unions should argue the city took “private property for public use, without just compensation.”

And unions do plan to keep fighting.

“We have to get with our attorneys and decide which way to go, whether it’s federal or state,” said Rick Hoffman, president of the firefighters union. “I personally think this ruling strengthens our stance.”


Photo: “Ext-Night” by Basilica1 Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Detroit Voters Pass Pension Cuts By A Landslide

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The long-awaited news has finally come: Detroit’s pension holders have approved a ballot measure that cuts their pension benefits as part of the city’s bankruptcy plan. There was much speculation about whether the measure would pass. In the end, though, it wasn’t even close. The Wall Street Journal had the final tally:

The official count, filed late Monday night, showed 82% of those eligible for a police or fire pension who voted supported the plan. Roughly 73% of other retirees and employees with pension benefits who voted favored the plan. Voting lasted through early July.
The voting margins from pension holders were seen as an endorsement for the city’s plan to confront an estimated $18 billion in long-term obligations.
“The voting shows strong support for the City’s plan to adjust its debts and for the investment necessary to provide essential services and put Detroit on secure financial footing,” Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr said.
Despite the critical nature of the vote, a sizable chunk of those eligible sat out. About 59% of police and firefighter pension holders and 42% of other pension holders cast ballots, according to the city’s legal filing.

Need a recap of what exactly the “yes” vote means? Here’s an explanation from Click On Detroit:

General retirees would get a 4.5 percent pension cut and lose annual inflation adjustments. Retired police officers and firefighters would lose a portion of their annual cost-of-living raise.
Ballot approval of the pension changes triggers an extraordinary $816 million bailout from the state of Michigan, foundations and the Detroit Institute of Arts. The money would prevent the sale of city-owned art and avoid deeper pension cuts. The judge, however, still must agree.

That last line is key: the city’s bankruptcy judge still has to OK the plan. But it was always assumed that if voters passed it, the judge would too.

To read the official declaration released by the bankruptcy court, click here.

Insiders Say Detroit’s Pension-Slashing Ballot Measure On Track To Pass

The ballots have been cast and the votes have been counted. And although Detroit officials are remaining silent on the results of the all-important pension-cutting ballot measure, a few leaks have made their way to media outlets. The consensus: the measure has enough “yes” votes to pass, according to the Detroit Free Press:

Detroit pensioners appear to have voted in favor of allowing the city to cut their monthly checks as part of the grand bargain to help resolve the city’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy, several sources familiar with the voting results told the Free Press.

Police and fire pensioners appeared to have accepted the deal by a wide margin, and while the vote was closer with civilian retirees, only an unexpected last-minute surge of “no” votes would derail the plan, according to people familiar with the voting results.

The city’s pensioners had until 5 PM last Friday to vote on the proposed measure to cut their pensions by 4.5 percent and eliminate future COLA increases. Those cuts are hard to stomach for some, but Detroit maintains that a “yes” vote would stave off even deeper cuts. The implications of a “yes” vote, according to the Detroit Free Press:

If the two separate classes of pensioners [public safety workers and civilian pensioners] vote yes, the City of Detroit would accept $195 million in upfront cash from the State of Michigan and $466 million in 20-year pledges from nonprofit foundations and the Detroit Institute of Arts to help reduce pension cuts and allow the museum to spin off. The deal for pensioners and the DIA has come to be known as the grand bargain.

If voters reject the measure, those cash infusions from the state and nonprofits fall through. That means that even deeper cuts in pension benefits will likely be necessary. Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr had originally proposed cutting pension benefits by up to 34 percent.

But it doesn’t look like that will be the case. From Freep:

Sources familiar with the vote said that although ballots mailed at the last minute have not yet been tabulated, a high percentage of public safety pensioners — classified under the Police and Fire Retirement System class — voted yes to accept a reduction in annual pension inflation adjustments from 2.25% to 1%.

It’s closer among civilian pensioners — classified under the General Retirement System class — the sources said.

Two people familiar with the situation said that with last-minute votes yet to be counted, more than 70% of GRS [General Retirement System] voters had voted yes.

The plot thickens just a bit here, because a simple majority isn’t enough to pass this measure. There are two classes of voters: public safety workers and civilian workers. Both classes must have a majority of “yes” votes. And the “yes” votes from each class must represent at least two-thirds of the dollar value of the debt owed to them.

The results of the vote don’t have to be publicly revealed until July 21. But even then, the measure can’t yet go into law. It needs to be first approved by a bankruptcy judge.