The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

December 9, 2013

Dan Tobben, guest columnist: First responders deserve better in disability fight

ST. LOUIS — Police officers and firefighters in Joplin have dangerous jobs but are not covered by Social Security as a result of their public service, so their pensions, promised to them when they were hired, are critical to their future.

The upcoming vote regarding authority to buy disability insurance as part of their pensions is shrouded in confusion, misinformation from the city of Joplin and lack of trust.

Though on appeal, a circuit judge has clearly ruled on what the current duty disability provisions mean. The city of Joplin has portrayed that ruling as a “benefit increase,” and then created a horror story about 20 police officers suddenly going out on disability because they might now receive what the court has ruled they were promised all along. If these 20 officers exist, are they now serving Joplin while being truly disabled; or does Joplin infer that 20 of its police officers will try to go out on disability in some manipulative or fraudulent manner? Neither seems probable. There are safeguards present in the current plan to prevent improper disability awards from being granted. Joplin has had very few firefighters or police officers receive permanent disability, fewer than six in the last two decades.

The Pension Board and city’s position on appeal in the litigation is that a police officer or firefighter with two years of service would get 4 percent of their salary if they were paralyzed for life due to an “on-duty” injury.

The court has ruled the first responder would get 50 percent of their salary. For nonduty disabilities, Joplin contends the officer or firefighter would only get 1⁄20 of 4 percent without the possibility of receiving Social Security Disability.

These public servants performed admirably during the tornado. Their families and all of you depend on them.

The underlying fear of the police officers is apparently that the city won’t honor its obligations and properly fund this pension plan. They fear that they and their families won’t receive their pensions when they retire and have been told disability insurance might magically improve their chances. Is this fear unfounded, or is this truly a reflection of the seeds of doubt being planted by the city regarding honoring its legal obligations? If the latter, it is shameful. Given Joplin’s recent tragic history, using the threat of stiffing its first responders in this way, if true, reflects very poorly on someone in Joplin’s city government.

Using the imaginary tale told to the actuary about 20 disabilities to try to effect a change is disingenuous. The study based on that story is flawed and not in compliance with state statutes. Even the city attorney isn’t sure this insurance “solution” will work out in the marketplace.

All of the inconsistencies between the insurance policy and the pension plan, and the increased administrative burdens, were pointed out to the city. Insurance policies are written to keep benefit payments relatively low.

Making numerous changes to match plan provisions would drive up the costs significantly, so the savings envisioned may be illusory.

The idea that a for-profit insurer will charge the pension plan less, if there is really a dramatic uptick in officer disabilities, as predicted by some, is not credible.

Also, when the city attorney says the disabled police officers and firefighters will get the same benefit through disability insurance as now, does he mean the 4 percent of salary described above?

He must, because that is what the city and the pension board are asking the court of appeals to decide.

If that is true, then all of this is beyond shameful.

Daniel G. Tobben is a principal with the St. Louis law firm Danna McKitrick P.C. with experience with public employee pension issues. Tobben has represented trustees of public safety pension plans in St. Louis, Springfield and Joplin in Missouri, as well as in Illinois and Nebraska.

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