Disabled police fight for pensions

Robey would lift cap but reduce payments

Howard County

May 23, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

As a 39-year-old disabled retiree, former Howard County police officer Raymond Walsh gets two-thirds of his former pay tax-free for life after his decade-long career. He gets medical care for himself, and up to a 2 percent cost-of-living increase each year based on inflation.

An active duty, uninjured officer, by comparison, has to work at least 20 years to get a taxable pension that is half his former salary. A 30-year veteran gets a 65 percent taxable pension - the most anyone can receive.

But fair is in the eye of the beholder.

If they work a new job after retirement, Walsh and eight other disabled public safety retirees start to have their pensions cut when their combined new salaries and pension payments exceed a certain cap - $3,000 above their old salaries, adjusted for inflation.

The disabled retirees have their pensions cut by a dollar for every dollar they earn above the cap. Walsh and several others want that cap removed.

But County Executive James N. Robey wants the disability retirees to go back to half-pay, tax-free pensions in exchange. He's proposed that in a bill before the County Council.

"I think the executive is being fair. We've got people who have been here 28 years," says county Police Chief Wayne Livesay. "Why should they [disabled retirees] earn more?"

Robey's bill would give the retirees the same option for removing the earnings cap that current employees have if they are hurt and have to leave early, say Livesay and JimmieSaylor, the county human resources administrator.

"I can't go back and give these guys a greater benefit. It's that simple," said Robey, a former county police chief and 32-year officer who met with Walsh and a few other disabled retirees.

The retirees fire back that police pay in Howard County increased by an average 16 percent last year - after their retirements - and is due for another 3.6 percent rise July 1.

"How is it fair that salaries and cost-of-living increases have gone up? Is going backwards fair?" asked Walsh, who is also president of the Association of Retired Police Officers of Howard County.

Walsh, who works nights as a private security guard, says the law capping his post-retirement income is making life tough for his wife and three young children.

Walsh and others say Robey's bill would cut their pensions by 17 percent.

The County Council will try sorting out the issue at a work session today. A vote on Robey's bill is scheduled for June 5.

The debate is sharp, fueled by the anger of the former police officers who say they didn't want to retire in the first place."I had no idea or plan to go out on disability," Walsh said."It was pretty rough [emotionally]," he said, facing a deadline to apply for a disability pension while waiting to see whether he could continue after a chronic foot injury.

Walsh said he's getting $26,700 and would have his pension scaled back to $20,000 a year under Robey's bill to be rid of the earnings cap.

The cap allows a pensioner to earn the difference between the pension and their old salary, plus $3,000. For Walsh, that's just more than $16,000, he said.

Retiring early means he will not benefit from those recent pay raises or reach the pay level a full career would have allowed. Walsh said he is paying $2,000 a year for medical insurance for his wife and children, and noted that there is no take-home patrol car either.

"There's more than just the actual salary itself," Walsh said.

Franklin O. Lilly,another disability retiree allied with Walsh, feels the same way."I was a senior Howard investigator," the former detective said. "I was where I wanted to be and I was still learning. I didn't want to go out."

A badly twisted leg led to arthritic knees, and eventually he could no longer pass the police physical, Lilly said. He retired after 16 years in 1996 and gets a tax-free, two-thirds pension of $31,500 a year.

Lilly is a contract civilian employee for Howard's police, investigating job applicants' backgrounds for $17 an hour. Last year, his pension was cut by about $9,000, he said, because his earnings exceeded the cap.

If Robey's bill passes and Lilly has to go back to a 50 percent pension, he will get about $25,000 a year, he said.

"You have to look at what people are earning now. The economy has changed. Salaries are much greater," he said.

According to county officials, a top-scale detective patrolman making $41,209 in 1996 would be making $57,027, starting July 1.

A 10-year patrolman like Walsh, earning $42,241 four years ago, would make $7,500 a year more. A corporal's pay would increase $12,000 a year.

To say their tax-free pension income is a better deal than full-career officers have on normal pensions isn't fair, said the disabled retirees.

"It's ludicrous," retired Cpl. Charles M. Ellenberger, 54, a 22-year veteran said about the chief's view.

Ellenberger retired after shoulder surgery in 1993. His private security company is so profitable that under the earnings cap he isnot eligible for disability money.

If the bill passes, however, he could go back to a half-pay, tax-free disability pension and take home more money.

For example, Saylor said, someone earning $37,000 a year in 1996 would be getting $27,000 a year now, tax free, and could earn $18,600 more a year before losing benefits under the current earnings cap. Under Robey's bill, that pension would drop to $20,500 a year.

But Saylor noted that another retiree, whom she would not name, is receiving no pension because his post-retirement job pays so well. If Robey's bill passes, she said, that person would qualify for 50 percent of his old pay, tax free.

"We put this bill forward because it helps them [retirees]. They can take 50 percent and never tell me what they're earning again," Saylor said.

"They're part of my family over there," Robey said about the county police. "I wouldn't do anything to hurt them."

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