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November 10th, 2004 Mary Ann Albright | News Stories
 

Raking (in) Leave

The city's fire and police disability plan gets a new look.

     
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Last month, Portland taxpayers finally got to see exactly how much they're spending on retired and injured cops and firefighters. For many, it was a frightening sight.

This year, for the first time, property-tax bills include a separate line item delineating what every city homeowner pays into the Fire and Police Disability and Retirement Fund. On a $161,000 house, the fund eats up about $212 a year, approximately one-tenth of the tax bill and twice the amount that goes to support city parks and county libraries.

The new billing format could prompt taxpayers to wonder what they're getting for their cash. The answer? A pension fund that is threatening to rack up massive debts (see "The Pension Fund That Ate Portland," WW, March 25, 1998) and a disability plan more generous than any other WW could find.

While most government employees in Oregon are covered by the Public Employees Retirement System, most Portland cops and firefighters receive their benefits from a separate fund.

One key difference is how disability leave is approved. PERS relies on outside experts to evaluate injury claims. The police and fire fund operates internally and, critics say, loosely.

A WW study of other cities' disability rolls suggests an unusually high share of Portland officers are on leave at any one time. Nine other cities surveyed by WW reported an average of less than 2 percent of their police and firefighters on leave. In Portland, the figure is 14 percent (see chart).

Babette Heeftle, FPDR's administrator, cautions that comparisons between cities are difficult because Portland, unlike many other cities, combines officers and firefighters on short-term leave due to injuries and those who retire early for medical reasons.

Leo Painton, secretary treasurer of the police association and a trustee on the FPDR board, agrees that Portland's unique system makes comparisons tough. "I think [FPDR] is working as best it can," he says. "We have a charter to live by and rules to live by."

Painton notes that those rules were tightened four years ago to end the practice of providing pension payments to incarcerated members and to add citizen trustees to the board, which ultimately approves or denies claimants' requests. (In addition to three citizen members, the 11-member board is made up of the mayor, the city auditor, the city treasurer, two Fire Bureau representatives, two Police Bureau representatives, and either the police or fire chief.)

Bigger reforms could be in store. Both mayor-elect Tom Potter and commissioner-elect Sam Adams say the city should gradually shift officers onto the PERS plan. In addition, Adams, who promised voters he'd find ways to save money, would like city-approved doctors reviewing injury claims. He notes that Portland's high disability numbers suggest that either this city is an unusually dangerous place to fight crime and fires, or the benefits board is overly generous.

"If they're being fair, we have a workforce safety issue. If not, then we need to address that," Adams says. "Given that these officers risk their lives on a daily basis, their benefits should be more than fair. But the interests of the taxpayers should be served as well."

Anna Hermann contributed to this story.

Questionable Cases

Lowlights from the Portland police benefit files.

* From 1984 until his death in 2003, former police officer Lloyd Grundmeyer collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from the city fund while behind bars serving an 18-year sentence for sex crimes.

* Officer Cheryl Arnold has been on paid leave for the past 14 years due to stress from a sexual-harassment case; she does not need to return to work unless her own doctor says she can--even if other doctors might think she's fit for work.

* In 2002, Lt. Gabriel Kalmanek, while under investigation for his handling of an off-duty assault by two other officers, filed for disability leave stemming from an injury he said he sustained five years earlier.

 
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