LIKE THE LAST CALL at some trade association's open bar, there's been a stampede of top police officers and firefighters limping and groaning their way to the retirement board before somebody shuts off the disability-pension tap. somebody, in this case, means Congress, which ought to move swiftly to put a stop to the enormously expensive racket that has been passing as a police and fire retirement program here. Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee handling District of Columbia affairs, had it right the other day when he described the city's pension system "by far and away the premier ripoff system in the U.S., second to none." As the senator also knows, Congress created this monster -- which is why it is up to Congress to bring it under control before it soaks another generation of D.C. taxpayers.
As we have noted before, there are four disability retirements in Washington's police and fire departments for every regular retirement -- a scandalously out-of-line ratio. But when a system dangles benefits equalling 70 percent of current pay (tax-free) plus the same share of all future raises given to on-duty police officers, the temptation for old injuries to flare up is almost irrestible. So it is that we've just witnessed a police chief, a fire chief and an assistant police chief leading the charge for disability retirements. And though this departure of disabled brass has brought public attention [and outrage] to the subject. Mayor Washington has only recently begun to recognize this as a serious matter.
It's one whale of a way to run up a good tab, that's for sure: Even if the system were shut off right now, with everyone on retirement today living a normal life span, budget experts say the cost of discharging outstanding obligations would be between $1 billion and $1.5 billion. You don't have to be a crack mathematician to figure out that that bill to taxpayers would be much lower if there had been more regular retirements and fewer disability payments.
As if all this weren't enough, the system doesn't even turn out to be fair to the pension applicants. Representatives of the city's police union, who surely appreciate the monetary goodies dispensed by the disability program, are charging that sick members must wait months and years, sometimes without pay, for appearances before the retirement board -- while top-ranking officials get their own cases heard with little advance notice. The union officials are particularly incensed by the handling of Assistant Police Chief Tilmon O'Bryant's disability retirement. He has had responsibility for the police and fire clinic, ruling on the appeals of sidelined officers seeking leave with pay while they await disposition of their cases. According to the union's attorney, Mr. O'Bryant has turned down all the appeals, forcing officers to exhaust their sick leave. Meanwhile, staff writer Ron Shaffer reports that Mr. O'Bryant has been known as a health enthusiast who has jogged each morning around the Tidal Basin and Hains Point.
So even the police officers on the beat and the rank-and-file firefighters recognize that the system is damaging the genuine cases -- those here the ability to function has really been impaired in service to the community. Maybe the opening of the local political season will spur some office seekers to push harder for congressional enactment of legislation now pending on Capitol Hill. Otherwise, it will continue to appear that city hall leaders believe that this disgusting gravy train is a perfectly acceptable way to travel.