Baltimore County officials say thousands of workers could be forced to contribute more to their pensions after a federal judge ruled that the county retirement system discriminates against beneficiaries based on age.
The county vowed Tuesday to "aggressively" fight the court decision, which the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced this week. U.S. District Judge Benson Everett Legg ruled that the county pension system violates the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act because older workers were required to pay more for their retirement benefits than younger ones.
The court has not yet determined damages in the case. Still, Don Mohler, chief of staff to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, said costs to the county could total millions of dollars and employees could "have to make up the difference."
"If this judge's ruling is to stand, he will be taking money out of the pockets of county employees," Mohler said.
The county is reviewing legal options and is "prepared to aggressively defend its position, all the way to the Supreme Court if we have to," Mohler said. "We will fight this case until there is no one left to fight, to protect our employees."
EEOC regional attorney Debra M. Lawrence said in a statement that the commission "will litigate the case in the Court, not in the media."
In a blog post published on the county website Tuesday, county budget and finance director Keith Dorsey wrote that the EEOC "misstates and distorts the County's retirement program. ..." About 8,000 employees could have to pay more to their retirement benefits, he wrote.
"Baltimore County's retirement contribution schedule is not discriminatory, was negotiated by County labor groups, and is supported by years of sound actuarial studies," Dorsey wrote.
The county's $2 billion retirement system covers about 9,000 active employees and 6,000 retirees. In 2007, the county changed its system so that employees hired after July 1 of that year contribute at a flat rate not based on their age.
The EEOC sued the county that year on behalf of workers hired before 2007. Two years later, the county prevailed in court, but the EEOC appealed and the case was returned.
Any changes to the contribution rates of unionized county employees would have to be negotiated, according to employee-benefits lawyers and county labor leaders. The county's unions were also named as defendants by the EEOC.
Baltimore County Professional Fire Fighters Association President Mike Day said he believes the judge's decision could ultimately hurt county employees.
"The money's going have to come from somewhere," said Day, who also serves on the retirement system's board of trustees. "If the money has to come from Baltimore County's coffers, then that's less money that Baltimore County's going to have to negotiate another raise."
But Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees President John Ripley said the county's public comments on the case amounted to blaming workers for its legal troubles.
"Enough's enough," Ripley said. "We didn't set the contribution rates. ... County employees are no more responsible for this than the residents that elected the county officials to run the government."