Firefighters Protest Treatment by Benefits Staff

By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007

About two dozen angry firefighters showed up unexpectedly at a regular meeting of the Arlington County Board yesterday, alleging mistreatment by county benefits administrators who handle insurance and pension claims and pleading for intervention by elected officials.

Sherri Stebbins, the widow of a retired firefighter, said her husband, David, died last month of a heart attack after delays in receiving his heart medication because of a bureaucratic runaround over getting the prescription filled.

Jeffrey Waltman, who said he suffers "chronic pain" as a result of an injury he received in a firetruck accident, said county employees treat him "like a criminal" for receiving disability payments. Rudy Eversburg, a disabled firefighter, said county employees had treated him with "depraved indifference."

More than a dozen firefighters testified along similar lines, while board Chairman Paul Ferguson (D) repeatedly asked them to shorten their remarks, saying board members would meet with them privately. He said that the firefighters were using up the time allotted for citizens to make public comments and that it was not the proper forum for the county to deal with employee issues.

County Manager Ron Carlee said Arlington has substantially improved the pay and benefits package for its firefighters in the past five years, adding that it hasn't been easy because health costs have risen steeply. He said the county is also grappling with skyrocketing pension obligations and is trying to find ways to manage costs.

"We cannot write blank checks," Carlee said. The amount of money that Arlington will need to pay for future retiree benefits has risen to "half a billion" dollars, he said, calling it the "number one most difficult challenge" he faces as a county official.

After the meeting, Mike Staples, president of the county firefighters union, said that 18 firefighters are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome resulting from their work at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, and that some are not receiving their correct pensions or proper medical treatment.

"There's a culture in the county government where disability retirees are villainized," he said.

In other action, the board approved plans for the next phase of the reconstruction of Yorktown High School, at a cost of $103 million, which will include a gymnasium, classroom space, music and arts areas, and an aquatic facility that will be relocated from nearby Greenbrier Park. It will be built to high standards of energy efficiency; among other amenities, the pool will be heated by solar energy, and toilets will flush using rainwater collected from the building's roof.

Parents and advocates said the modernization is needed, but some neighbors said traffic would only worsen in the area as amenities are added. Construction is expected to begin in June and end by 2012.

The county also established a tree fund to promote planting on private property. Developers will contribute $2,400 for each tree they cut down that cannot be replaced on-site, with the money to be distributed to community groups that will use the money to plant trees elsewhere. The county plants more than 1,200 trees each year on public property.

The new program has been created because the county's dense urbanization has resulted in the loss of many shade trees. Since the 1970s, more than 3,000 acres in Arlington have been converted from "heavy" tree cover, or about 50 percent tree canopy, to "low" coverage, or less than 20 percent tree canopy.

Ferguson said the tree canopy fund was created to help re-create a "healthy urban forest," to make homes cooler in summer and to make the county more walkable.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company