MONTGOMERY COUNTY’S generally excellent police force appears hale and healthy, but for years many officers routinely claimed full disability at retirement, a straight-up scam that bilked county taxpayers of millions of dollars. Finally, after overcoming ferocious opposition to any change from the union that represents officers, the county settled on a legislative fix that took effect in 2012 — and even then the union continued to fight the change.
Fortunately, the county council stuck to its guns, and now the results are clear, as is the scale of the abuse that was taking place in the police department. On a force where full disability was once a routine method of retiring at nearly full pay, there has been a sea change.
To recap: Over the five years that ended in 2009, 91 officers in Montgomery were awarded disability pensions, which are tax free. That amounted to more than 60 percent of all retirees from the police force. By comparison, just three officers in Fairfax County received such a benefit over the same span.
In the past two years, following the council’s reform, just four of more than 80 retiring officers made disability claims.
The root of the problem was that the department did not have — and the police union would not accept — a common-sense distinction between serious and minor impairments. Officers who suffered nothing more than sore backs and knees — the usual problems — were treated no differently than the very rare officer paralyzed from the waist down. And it was not uncommon for youngish officers with relatively minor disabilities to retire with full benefits and take full-time jobs elsewhere — sometimes physically demanding ones.
After initially shying away from a confrontation with the police union, the county council passed a law that distinguished between serious and minor impairments, establishing two levels of disability awards. Since regular retirement is now a better deal than a pension award for a minor disability, very few officers claim the latter. And there are even fewer officers who can make a legitimate claim of full disability.
Montgomery’s police department now has a rational system, one that is in line with those of other area agencies, including fire departments. What is remarkable about the reform is how difficult it was to achieve.
The Fraternal Order of Police, which represents uniformed officers in the county, should have been embarrassed. Instead, it fought any change bitterly for years. The county council, quailing at a showdown with the union, backed away from a legislative remedy in 2009 before finally adopting it in 2011. Even after the new system went into effect in 2012, the union pressed ahead with arbitration to overturn it. This time the council held firm. A consultant estimated the savings to taxpayers at nearly $3 million annually.
The recession provided the political spine for some elected officials to get tough on waste and abuse in county government. Now that times are better, let’s hope they don’t forget that it’s still important to stand up for taxpayers.
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