Montgomery County Reworks Disability Program

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

After months of contentious debate, Montgomery County's elected officials took steps yesterday to inject more oversight and independence into the government's disability retirement system but balked at changing the program's one-size-fits-all benefit for police officers.

The County Council unanimously approved legislation that will change the way doctors are selected to review disability applications, require independent medical exams and mandate the reexamination of retirees collecting disability. The measure reflects an informal agreement reached between County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and leaders of the police union.

But the council deadlocked over whether to create a partial benefit for those still able to work. The split leaves in place a system that pays a tax-free benefit equal to nearly 67 percent of previous salary to all officers who can show they are no longer capable of performing police work.

Council President Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), who considered a two-tier benefit essential to overhauling the system, called the measure "an important first step forward."

Tim Firestine, Leggett's chief administrative officer, said that the county executive intends to sign the legislation but would continue to press for a two-tier system to "help control disability retirements" when negotiations resume with union leaders in the fall.

Uniformed police officers and union leaders, who watched the debate from the back of the council auditorium, thanked council members for rejecting efforts to legislate a partial benefit, which they said should be bargained. "We fixed a problem surgically," said Walter Bader, a longtime leader of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 35, who has said that disability benefits should be viewed in the context of the overall retirement system. "We didn't do it through perception. We did it through reality."

Andrews and council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large) introduced legislation last year in response to a highly critical report by the inspector general that found more than 60 percent of police officers who retired between 2004 and 2008 were collecting disability. In addition to establishing a partial benefit, the initial bill would have created a separate panel to sign off on the recommendation of the medical review board.

Leggett also commissioned an internal study that found a higher percentage of police disability retirements in Montgomery than in nearby jurisdictions. A Washington Post analysis found that 41 percent of officers who retired from 2000 to 2007 receive disability benefits, compared with 23 percent in Prince George's County and none in Fairfax County.

The debate yesterday highlighted differences in council members' views of the extent of the problem and about their role when it comes to public employees.

Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) offered a compromise that would have required a two-tier benefit, but left it to Leggett and union leaders to work out the details at the bargaining table. But Berliner's proposal stalled after the council split on a 4 to 4 vote. Opponents said the council should not dictate the terms of labor negotiations or insert itself into collective bargaining through the passage of legislation.

"Never in my seven years here has the council unilaterally decided what the outcome should be in bargaining," said council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who described the issue as overblown.

Berliner agreed that the council should not determine the specific level of benefit, but said it was the panel's role to set "core public policy," particularly when there is a "fundamental flaw in our system."

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