Disability Retirement Surge Worries Official

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By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009

Montgomery County Council President Phil Andrews said yesterday that he is concerned about the rising number of police officers who have applied for disability retirement in recent months, a sign, he said, of an apparent "movement to beat the clock" on efforts to overhaul the system.

In the last three months of 2008, eight officers put in for disability, a 60 percent increase from the same period in 2007. The increase comes as the County Council takes up legislation today designed to provide more oversight and flexibility in the $32 million system, which is under scrutiny by Montgomery's inspector general and federal law enforcement officials.

Joseph Adler, director of the county Office of Human Resources, said the rise in applications "doesn't seem to be huge. It is an increase, yes, but is it a very, very large increase?"

Walter Bader, a leader of the county's police union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, said the legislative proposal has created uncertainty among Montgomery police officers.

"This bill is an incentive to people who otherwise would stay and work injured to get out," Bader said. "They are taking what they are entitled to earlier than they would have otherwise. The ones I know were going to work hurt for a little longer, but they are saying: 'You've kicked me in the teeth. I'm leaving now.' "

Under Montgomery's current disability system, all retirees who qualify for service-connected disability receive a tax-free benefit equal to about two-thirds of what their salary was. Legislation sponsored by Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) and council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large) would establish a smaller, partial disability benefit for officers who are capable of working in some capacity. It would make the standard for total disability more stringent while increasing that benefit to 70 percent.

The council has scheduled a public hearing on the measure for tonight, and representatives from labor unions and taxpayer groups are supposed to testify.

Former acting police chief Thomas Evans, who retired in 1999 after 25 years, said in a recent letter to the council that many active and retired county employees think that the disability system "is abused by some who unfairly seek the financial gain that is afforded by the enhanced benefits." Evans said he favors changes to the system to support officers who are truly disabled, while "weeding out those with dubious claims."

Bader and other union officials have criticized the council for trying to act unilaterally, through legislation, instead of giving the union time to negotiate changes with County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).

The union is preparing an online advertisement to tell residents that council members are "trying to play politics with our safety, trying to cut disability insurance for police officers. It's not fair and it's not smart."

"I don't think I'm playing politics at all. What I'm doing is my job," Trachtenberg said. "It's clear there's a problem."

In September, the inspector general's office found that more than 60 percent of Montgomery officers who retired in the past four years have been collecting service-related disability payments. By comparison, no officers in Fairfax County have retired on service-related disability since 2000.

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