AT LAST, Montgomery County has ended a long-running scandal that bilked taxpayers by encouraging police officers and other county employees with relatively minor service-connected disabilities to retire at what amounted to nearly full pay. A cleaned-up and eminently more sensible system took effect July 1, after years of political paralysis. While the new regimen’s full impact will not be felt immediately, eventually it will save the county several million dollars a year.
What’s most noteworthy about the saga is the monumental political effort that was required to fix a scheme that was so obviously rife with abuse. A scam that should have triggered universal condemnation and immediate reform dragged on for nearly five years after it was first exposed.
For that, Montgomery taxpayers can blame the influence of the Fraternal Order of Police and other public-employee unions, which fought tooth and nail to preserve and protect a massively inefficient and corruption-prone arrangement. Because of the unions’ clout, a measure to repair the system was defeated in 2009 and delayed in 2010. Even after it was approved in 2011, it was imperiled again this year before it finally became law.
Ultimately, the County Council, with reform-minded member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) leading the charge, overcame its deeply ingrained habit of submitting to union pressure while turning a blind eye to sound management and taxpayers’ interests. If there is a lesson in this saga, it’s how resistant to reform Montgomery is, despite a highly educated population that prizes good government.
The genesis of the problem was a disability rule that awarded police officers and some other county workers two-thirds of their final salaries for life, tax-free, regardless of whether they suffered from full paralysis or a stiff knee. Since most disabilities were of the stiff-knee variety, the effect was that officers with relatively minor incapacities could retire, collect annual pensions very close to their full incomes — and, in some cases, land other good-paying jobs that rivaled what they were earning as police officers.
The scheme, unmatched by any other local jurisdiction, offered such a potent incentive that it functioned as a parallel retirement system. For years, more than half the officers retiring from the police force claimed a disability pension — despite the fact that most retirees appeared to be hale and hearty.
In the end, the solution was simple enough: Establish a two-tiered system that differentiates between officers who can barely walk and those who have a good chance at finding other employment. Under the plan advanced by Mr. Andrews — identical to that already in use by county firefighters — employees who are deemed fully incapacitated will get tax-free pensions of at least 70 percent of their final earnings; those with lesser injuries will get 52.5 percent. By differentiating between the two, the county takes care of grievously hurt officers while making sure that lightly disabled ones aren’t lured into premature retirement by outsized pensions.
The two-tiered system, paired with a package of other common-sense reforms, should prevent police officers and others from gaming the system in the future. But it’s an open question whether the county’s elected officials have acquired the spine they will need to quash future abuses.