By Debby Woodin
Board members of the Joplin Police and Firemen’s Pension Fund will appeal a circuit judge’s ruling that disability benefits are to be awarded at half-pay.
The board discussed the issue in a closed session at a meeting Thursday. The city released a written notice about the vote on Monday night. The board used an exemption in the state’s open meetings law to hold a closed session and to not disclose the vote for three days.
According to a notice written by City Attorney Brian Head, the board took two votes in the closed session.
Firefighter representative John Alford made a motion to not appeal the judgment, and it was seconded by another firefighter, Jimmy Ferguson.
The vote was 3 in favor and 4 against. Alford, Ferguson and Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean voted in favor of it. Police representatives Charla Geller and Larry Swinehart, and public and business representatives Bob Loudermilk and Larry Knoblauch voted against it.
Knoblauch then made a motion to appeal the ruling, which was seconded by Loudermilk. They along with Geller and Swinehart voted in favor of the appeal.
Joplin’s firefighters recently won a court ruling that they are entitled to half-pay without a reduction from the city pension fund if they are disabled or killed in the line of duty.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by a disabled fireman, Tom Robertson, over the city’s practice of reducing disability pay under a formula based on the amount of years that public safety workers are short of retirement.
Three other members of the Fire Department, Adam Grimes, Larin Trenary and Daniel Jobe, joined the lawsuit on behalf of active firefighters along with the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Firefighters and police officers who were employed before 2009 are eligible for retirement at 20 years. The city has been reducing disability pay by one-twentieth for each year less than 20 years of service a worker served.
Members of the Fraternal Order of Police did not join the lawsuit.
Detective Will Davis, secretary-treasurer of the FOP, said police members voted to support the city and support the appeal because “the vast majority of police officers still have concerns if there is any abuse with people taking disability. The pension fund wasn’t built for that.”
Members are concerned about reserving assets in the plan so that paying benefits does not compound recent financial difficulties with underfunding of the plan, Davis said.
THE PENSION PLAN was changed in 2000 to allow retirement after 20 years and full refunds of contributions made by employees covered by the fund. It was changed in 2009 to allow retirement after 25 years with no refund of employee contributions.