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Change must overcome poor work ethic, union resistance

The unions "finally opened their eyes to potential abuses," Clear-water's police chief says.

Times Staff Writer

The four-alarm fire at Tampa General Hospital found Steve Skinner in a room so thick with smoke he could barely see. While he was working near a window, a pile of smoldering debris collapsed under his feet.

"Out I went," said Skinner, a veteran firefighter who was wearing full gear and an air tank. He landed on a hospital roof three floors below, a fall that broke several bones in his shoulder, caused a concussion, cut his face and left him severely bruised and swollen.

"The whole right side of my body was three times (the size) it normally is," he said.

After six months of rehabilitation in 1994, Skinner was fighting fires again. Today, he works with a rod in his upper arm and pins in his shoulder. He also works with pain but said it's "nothing that can't be tolerated."

Skinner easily might have qualified for a disability pension that would pay him most of his firefighter's salary for life while he doubled his money by pursuing another career.

But disability pensions are a last resort and a benefit that shouldn't be abused, he said. "I never really considered it as an option."

To others in public-safety careers, however, a disability pension is a ticket to an earlier, more comfortable retirement and a perk to be used at the first indication of pain.

Skinner's case and others like it are striking because they show how widely attitudes can vary. They help make the point that any pension plan, no matter how faithfully monitored, is only as solid as the work ethic of its members.

Compare Skinner's story to those of some of his peers, now retired on disability pensions:

  • The Clearwater police recruit who injured the web between her forefinger and thumb while practicing at the firing range, then later said it caused other ailments that made her unable to handle a desk job.
  • The St. Petersburg firefighter who said filing papers and using a copy machine aggravated soreness in his joints.
  • The three veteran Clearwater police officers permanently disabled in minor mishaps. One strained his shoulder while serving as a pall bearer. One hit his elbow on a metal door frame. Another twisted a knee at his desk.
  • The St. Petersburg police officer whose career-ending injuries included back problems from falling against computer equipment and twice falling out of chairs. Once he reported a blister from walking his beat.

"People used to look on injuries as a weakness," said David Keene, Tampa's assistant fire chief and a former pension board trustee. "The attitude of the old-timers was, 'I can hang in there, I can take this.'

"I hate to say 'macho,' but maybe that's the word for it. It was looked on as a defeat if you left here with a disability."

Blaming a declining work ethic on generational differences might be a stretch. Skinner is evidence of that. At 27, he's hardly an "old-timer."

Ron Forbes, a former police officer, police chief and city manager in Pinellas Park, blames police and firefighter unions. He was a member of the city's pension board in the early 1970s, when, he says, disability pensions weren't the problem they are now.

"One thing unions do is they basically sit down and school their membership in how to take advantage of their benefits, including (workers') compensation and pension benefits," Forbes said. "They help their members work the system."

But part of the problem is that elected officials agree to systems that leave themselves wide open to being "worked."

In Clearwater, city commissioners, pension board members and city managers complained for years about a benefits plan that acted as a magnet for disability pensions.

Until this year, the city offered disabled retirees 75 percent of their average salary for the previous five years -- a generous pension by most standards.

Disabled pensioners also received an extra 15 percent for each dependent child under 18. The tax-free pensions were awarded by a three-member panel of fellow employees, which grew more powerful after a 1985 court order took away the City Commission's final say over pensions.

According to records dating back 20 years, the pension board took little action to root out possible fraud.

And, as in Largo and Tampa, a disabled police officer or firefighter couldn't be forced to take a light-duty job elsewhere in city government.

With disability pensions starting to spin out of control in the 1980s, Clearwater's pension board suggested annual physicals to prevent fraud. But when pensioners and the unions complained, the board quickly backed down and deemed the idea too problematic.

Despite the official hand-wringing, Clearwater took years to correct the problems, primarily because any changes needed approval from three unions and city voters.

ROBERT PENNINGTON: The chairman of the Tampa pension board says asking unions to give up any benefits for their members "would be a tough sell."

'Rule No. 1: Protect the plan'

The solution came when the unions "finally opened their eyes to the potential abuses that had occurred and stepped up to the plate," said police Chief Sid Klein.

Ed Hooper, a former union official who recently was elected to the Clearwater City Commission, had a hand in convincing other union members that a change was needed.

Of certain provisions in the old plan, he said: "Maybe they were a little too lucrative." Some changes upset many union members, but the new plan is fairer, he said. "Rule No. 1 is, above all, protect the plan."

As of Jan. 1, disability pensions went from 75 percent of pay to 662/3. The extra 15 percent for dependents was dropped. The pension board is larger and more accountable to the public, and would-be pensioners can be forced to take other city jobs if they are able to do them.

Regular pensions were improved to encourage employees to stay longer.

But the incentive is still there for a disability retirement. For example, a police officer with 20 years on the job at a salary of $40,000 still will earn nearly $400 more a month on disability.

And, unlike regular pensions, the disability pension is tax-free.

Clearwater also has a new fraud-prevention provision that allows pensioners to be called back to work if their injuries heal. The only problem: The 80 employees who got pensions under the old system won't ever be subject to recall, even if they do heal.

For other cities, the solutions to out-of-control pension plans might also lie in their recall systems.

Times reporters found instances in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Largo where tips about disability pensioners working physically demanding jobs never were pursued.

Most cities detect fraud through random tips and from skimming routine forms filled out by the pensioners. In Tampa, for example, a city computer picks 20 pensioners at random each year to fill out such forms, which may or may not be completed truthfully.

Also in Tampa, officials are pondering changes that would correct another problem. Right now, someone who hurts a thumb gets the same disability benefits as the employee who loses a leg on the job.

One way to make the system fairer would be to award benefits based on the severity of the injury, said Tampa police Lt. Robert Pennington, chairman of the Tampa pension board and a trustee for 18 years. An employee who injured a hand might get 10 percent of his salary while someone with complications from being shot might get 70 percent.

But making any changes probably would prove an uphill battle, Pennington said.

Because Tampa police and firefighters sign their own contracts with the city when they are hired, any existing contracts would have to be renegotiated individually -- a task considered next to impossible.

Any hope for change rests on rewriting the contract for all new hires. But, even then, asking the police and firefighter unions to give up any benefits for their members "would be a tough sell," Pennington said.

Even if there were agreement, any changes to Tampa's contract would have to be approved by the Legislature.

Lou Kwall, a veteran Clearwater lawyer, suggested one change that no one else mentioned: Why not staff pension boards with medical professionals instead of employees?

In his only case before a pension board, Kwall secured a disability pension for a Clearwater police sergeant but noticed that there were few rules for presenting evidence and that the process appeared tainted by office politics and board members who seemed unsure about technical medical testimony.

"How can we expect these people to be able to judge medical situations?" Kwall said. "They're not lawyers, they're not doctors. They're just people doing the best job they can."

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