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Barry rails against pension changes

Refers to Catania bill as ‘draconian’

- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2011

Flanked by more than a dozen D.C. firefighters in red T-shirts, council member Marion Barry on Monday voiced his opposition to legislation that would place tighter fiscal controls on the District's pension obligations to police, firefighters and teachers.

Mr. Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, referred to the bill, introduced by council member David A. Catania in February, as a "draconian" measure that comes at a time when the District is trying to retain public safety officers.

The Pension Protection and Sustainability Amendment Act of 2011 would change how cost-of-living adjustments are calculated, remove a leave-without-pay loophole and require audits on the stability of the pension system. It also would remove overtime, bonus pay and vacation time from pension calculations and require a fiscal impact statement to accompany any legislation tied to pension costs.

There were no hearings or legislative actions on the bill Monday. Rather, Mr. Barry said he called the event to address "unrest" about the bill among the public D.C. workforce.

Mr. Catania, at-large independent, introduced the bill to address the District's increasing share of the roughly $500 million in annual pension payments to retirees. The city's liabilities are projected to grow because pension benefits earned before 1997 were paid by the U.S. government as part of the federal Revitalization Act.

"The numbers bear out what we're saying," a spokesman for Mr. Catania said.

Mr. Barry declined to specify his most pressing concern about the bill and reiterated his opposition to "all of it."

"If it ain't broken, don't fix it, and that's what this is all about," he said.

Of notable concern to union leaders is the prospect of employees retiring at 50 years old and having to wait until their mid-60s to enjoy cost-of-living adjustments.

The bill's critics said the measures would make the District an unattractive place to work. In particular, it would speed the rate of police attrition that is the subject of much debate among the council, said Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police unit that represents Metropolitan Police officers.

Mr. Catania has called the changes modest compared to pension overhauls in various states.

But Mr. Baumann, who weeks ago supported Mr. Catania's attempt to study police attrition through a special commission, said the D.C. pension system is healthier than those in other states. The bill, he said, is based on a "doom-and-gloom" scenario that assumes zero growth in the District.

"They want to manufacture problems and blame the front-line workers, and that's just not acceptable," he said.

Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said the bill would "undermine" educational reform in the District.

"It unsupports good working individuals in the District government," he said.

Ed Smith, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association, said firefighters put their lives on the line every day and ask "that the city lives up to the obligations that were promised."

Mr. Barry said he is joined by seven other council members in opposition to the bill, which is under review in the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment.

Interactions between Mr. Barry and Mr. Catania have been rocky since early 2009, when Mr. Barry offered the lone dissent in a vote that allowed the District to recognize gay marriages performed in other states.

Mr. Barry resented Mr. Catania's grilling of witnesses during hearings on Mayor Vincent C. Gray's personnel practices, and last week Mr. Catania joked that Mr. Barry knows a thing or two about "irresponsible budgeting."

Mr. Barry's press release announcing Monday's summit notes twice, in the first and last paragraphs, that Mr. Catania introduced the pension legislation.

"He is obsessed with David Catania," said Benjamin Young, Mr. Catania's chief of staff.

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