Trachtenberg, Andrews launch effort to reform disability retirement for Montgomery County police
Bill would create two-tiered benefits system based on severity of injury
Should a Montgomery County police officer with a broken trigger finger receive the same disability retirement benefits as a fellow officer who is paralyzed?
County Council members Philip Andrews and Duchy Trachtenberg say no.
They introduced a bill Tuesday to create a two-tiered system currently in place for the county's firefighters that would grant a lesser benefit for officers with less severe injuries.
Council members Valerie Ervin and Roger Berliner are co-sponsors of the legislation.
"There is a real difference between a broken finger and a paralyzed spine," Trachtenberg said. "You can't give the same benefit to someone who has a broken finger and someone who is in a wheelchair for life."
But that is what the county has been doing.
The bill stems from concerns over the number of police officers receiving a disability benefit for injuries suffered on the job about 60 percent of those who retired in 2008, according to an inspector general's report.
More recent data show that 18 of 44 police officers who retired between July 2009 and June 2010 received disability benefits, county spokesman Patrick K. Lacefield said.
Inspector General Thomas Dagley reported that in fiscal 2008, 837 county employees received disability benefits, totaling $32 million. Of those employees, 264 were former police officers who received a combined $13 million.
Under the bill introduced by Trachtenberg (D-At large) of North Bethesda and Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg, a county employee who retires due to service-connected disability would receive either a partial incapacity benefit of at least 52.5 percent of final earnings annually, or a total incapacity benefit of at least 70 percent of final earnings annually. Chief Administrative Officer Timothy Firestine ultimately sets the benefit amount.
Currently, the disability retirement benefit for all county employees, except fire and rescue personnel, is at least 66.7 percent of final earnings.
The employee receives the benefit for life.
Total incapacity would be awarded if the disability would prevent the employee from working for at least one year. Partial incapacity benefits would be awarded for those employees who are unable to perform at least one essential function of his or her current job, but could be employed elsewhere.
A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Sept. 28.
An independent medical review panel of two or three members is responsible for determining whether an employee is eligible to retire with a disability benefit. All panel members must be board certified in occupational medicine or have at least 10 years of experience practicing occupational medicine.
The bill also would prevent employees from receiving the disability benefit if they have been convicted of a crime and fired for cause something Andrews calls an "ongoing issue."
Several years ago, he said, several police officers were charged with theft and either resigned or were fired before applying for disability. At least one employee received the benefit, he said.
The council and Executive Isiah Leggett (D) have been mulling changes to disability retirement provisions since about 2008, when Dagley's report was issued.
That year, Andrews sponsored legislation that would have established a two-tiered system identical to the one proposed now. That provision failed on a 4-4 vote because the council wanted Leggett to include the disability retirement program in contract negotiations in 2009.
The vote was taken when the council had only eight members before Councilwoman Nancy M. Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring was appointed.
However, the council did adopt some other changes to disability retirement, such as requiring independent medical reviews not opinions rendered by the employees' personal doctors.
"No one is surprised that nothing was agreed to," Andrews said. "[The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 35] likes the current system. Why would they want to change it?"
The FOP's past president and chief negotiator Walt Bader did not respond to a call for comment.
This time, Andrews said he is confident the council will pass the bill.
Leggett supports a two-tiered system and other changes included in the current bill. He tried to include those provisions in employee contracts during contract negotiations this year.
"We bargained very hard, but the FOP wouldn't agree," Lacefield said. "We've attempted to negotiate it. We can't get agreement from the union."
The only other option, he said, is to change the law, which the bill being considered by the council would do.
Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said Tuesday that Leggett's inability to get agreement from the unions led her to support the legislation.
"There was an opportunity to have this negotiated through the process, and it didn't occur," she said.
Council President Nancy M. Floreen (D-At large) and Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park said the legislation needs further review.
John Sparks, president of the Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters Association, IAFF, Local 1664, AFL-CIO, said the matter is best handled during contract negotiations between Leggett and the unions.
"Things are better left to the process than legislated by elected officials," he said.