Bid to Reform Disability System Gains in Montgomery County, Maryland,

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 3, 2009

Two Montgomery County Council committees yesterday endorsed legislation that would overhaul the government's disability retirement program by establishing a partial disability benefit for those still able to work and by making the standard for total disability more stringent.

The vote was the first step by elected leaders to reform a program that has come under scrutiny by the county's inspector general and has been assailed by critics who say county employees unions are too powerful.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has been negotiating possible changes with police union leaders for six months. But supporters of the legislation said yesterday that the council had waited long enough and that it was time to act.

"We have been patient, but we cannot abdicate our own responsibility to ensure that a system that is clearly dysfunctional gets fixed," said council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda).

Berliner voted with sponsors Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) and Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large) to recommend the bill to the full council.

Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), who abstained, said the council's action would "drive a wedge" between public employees and Montgomery's elected leaders. because it bypassed labor negotiations. Also abstaining was Marc Elrich (D-At Large), who acknowledged problems with the system but said the council was essentially asking union leaders to "surrender bargaining rights."

Montgomery's disability system came under scrutiny last year when the inspector general reported on police officers who applied for benefits even as they were working without medical restrictions. Leggett called for reform, saying he was alarmed by the higher percentage of police officers collecting disability pay in Montgomery than in nearby jurisdictions.

A Washington Post analysis found that 41 percent of officers who retired between 2000 and 2007 receive disability benefits, compared with 23 percent in Prince George's County and none in Fairfax.

Under Montgomery's one-size-fits-all program for police officers, retirees who qualify for service-connected disability receive a tax-free benefit equal to about two-thirds of their salary.

The legislation, which would apply to all county employees, would establish partial benefits for those who can work in some capacity and would make the standard for total disability tougher while increasing that benefit to 70 percent.

The bill would also create a two-tier system for reviewing applications, with a separate medical and administrative panel, and require independent medical exams.

Gail Heath, who negotiates for the Municipal and County Government Employees Organization, said her members object, on principle, to a legislative fix. "We don't disagree that there may need to be changes, but we have not been invited to the table," she said. "We are supposed to be a partner in this."

Even as the committee acted yesterday, Andrews, the council president, said he would give Leggett and the police union three more weeks to reach agreement before he takes the bill to the full council for a vote April 28.

Leggett said that the two sides are "fairly close" but that he would not be forced into accepting a deal just to meet the council's timeline. One of the key sticking points, Leggett said last month, was the union's interest in using savings from a partial disability payment to automatically enhance regular retirement benefits.

Walter Bader, a longtime leader of Montgomery's police union, said he would not comment on the substance of negotiations, which he called a "moving target." He said that the legislation is ill-conceived but that he did not feel pressured by the council's action.

"We have a plan, we have a schedule and we're sticking to it," Bader said.

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