Montgomery's County Council Wavers on Fixing an Absurd Police Disability System

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

THOMAS J. DAGLEY, Montgomery County's inspector general, detailed in a report last September how 60 percent of county police officers who retired in the past four years received disability pension benefits amounting to two-thirds of their salaries tax-free for life. Mr. Dagley rightly described the service-related payments as "trends and behaviors that . . . a prudent person would consider abusive " -- but not, apparently, the Montgomery County Council. After months of wrangling, it may be preparing to gut legislation that would provide real reform and approve instead a diluted measure next Tuesday, an unacceptable outcome that would speak to the undue influence that union leaders exert over some council members.

The existing system takes a one-size-fits-all approach to benefits: Officers can receive full payments whether they have a hurt finger or a more serious injury. Unlike their counterparts in Prince George's and Fairfax counties, Montgomery's union leaders can veto appointees to the panel of doctors that reviews claims. The end result: A skewed system in which more than 90 percent of officers who have applied for disability payments since 1998 have been successful, according to a report released last year by Montgomery's Office of Human Resources.

A proposal by council president Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) and council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large) would establish an independent review panel and create distinctions between partial and full disability, common-sense remedies recommended by experts. Benefits would be far from stingy: Partially disabled officers would receive more than half of their salaries; fully disabled officers would get 70 percent -- a better deal than now. A nearly identical system is in place for county firefighters.

Union sympathizers protest that establishing two tiers of disability through legislation would undermine the collective bargaining process. To address this concern, council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) proposed a compromise that would establish two tiers of disability but leave it to the county executive and labor to negotiate levels of benefits. A committee recommended the measure by a 3 to 2 vote Monday, but the victory may be fleeting. The two members who dissented, Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) and Marc Elrich (D-At Large), may join Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) and George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) in voting to strip Mr. Berliner's amendment from the bill, effectively eliminating the two-tier reform. If that happens, these council members will confirm what many suspect: Their aim is to preserve the best possible terms for officers, deserved or not, not to protect collective bargaining.

Union officials complain that officers in other jurisdictions, such as Fairfax, get better regular retirement benefits. Whether or not that's true, preserving a flawed disability system is no way to level the playing field. Officers injured in the line of duty deserve compensation; officers who aren't truly disabled do not. That's obvious to "prudent people," including many of the taxpayers who are footing the bill for the disability payments. Residents will find out Tuesday whether it's obvious to the County Council.

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