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County Pensions Examined for Abuse

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Times Staff Writers

Nearly three-quarters of Los Angeles County firefighters and lifeguards who retired in the last three years successfully claimed they were disabled on the job and won enhanced pension benefits, county records show.

That’s a far higher rate than at the Los Angeles Fire Department, where 21% of firefighters who retired in the last three years received such disability pensions.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 15, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 15, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Government pensions -- An article in Tuesday’s California section about government pensions reported that 67% of San Diego County’s 1,213 retired safety personnel are on disability pensions. The figure is 40%.

The difference has sparked concern among county officials that fire and law enforcement employees can too easily take advantage of the more generous disability benefits.

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“We’re not trying to take any benefits from anyone who deserves them, but these numbers do seem unusually high,” said Roxane Marquez, a deputy to Supervisor Gloria Molina.

Molina ordered a report last week comparing Los Angeles County’s disability pensions and workers’ compensation payouts with other counties.

One of Molina’s additional concerns is the high number of county firefighters who claimed injuries that prevented them from working in the last year before their retirement, Marquez said. Those firefighters took a leave and received their full salaries tax-free.

From 2001 through 2003, 85% of firefighters seeking a disability pension also received these extra injury benefits for at least nine months. The cost of these benefits to the county has jumped from $20 million a decade ago to nearly $50 million last year.

“She suspects that the system is being abused,” Marquez said.

Officials in the county’s chief administrative office said they are reviewing the county’s method of approving disability benefits but said they believe few of the claims are fraudulent.

Rather, they said, the pension and workers’ compensation systems were designed by state legislators to help firefighters and police officers, who are likely to suffer debilitating work-related injuries in the course of a career.

“We don’t believe that fraud is involved, but the question is whether there’s something going on that needs to be fixed,” said David Janssen, the county’s chief administrative officer.

“It may be working the way it was intended -- to look after people who work for many years in a tough job.”

Disability retirements are just one part of a public pension system that is confronted with spiraling costs. Many county governments have seen their pension payments double and even triple in the last two years, siphoning off money that could be spent on law enforcement, healthcare, libraries and roads.

The rising costs have spurred local and state lawmakers to focus attention on possible irregularities in the pension and workers’ compensation systems, particularly for safety personnel, which include firefighters, police officers and sheriff’s deputies.

Citing media reports and a study by the California Highway Patrol into alleged fraud at its own agency, the Senate’s Government Oversight and Public Employment and Retirement committees plan to hold a joint hearing Jan. 24 on possible abuse.

Richard Steffen, staff director for state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), called on lawmakers to deliver an aggressive response to workers who improperly take advantage of the benefits.

“We don’t know if it’s a few dozen or a few hundred,” Steffen said. “It doesn’t matter. If it’s not right, it’s not right.”

The recent concern in Los Angeles County was sparked by a memo that cataloged the number of disability pensions in the Los Angeles County Fire Department, which also employs county lifeguards.

Unlike the county’s regular pensions, disability pensions allow retirees to receive 50% of their income tax-free. In addition, spouses can inherit the full pension when a retiree dies. Under a regular county pension, a spouse can inherit 65%.

Between 2001 and 2003, a total of 288 firefighters and lifeguards retired, with 213 receiving a disability pension, the memo said.

In the year before those disabled pensioners retired, 182 also collected injury benefits that allowed them to remain off work for at least nine months while collecting their full salary tax-free.

Those firefighters did not necessarily claim that a disabling injury occurred immediately before filing a claim. They can also qualify for the payments if a doctor determines that a series of job-related injuries or illnesses over their career has left them too sick to work.

Those claims add another burden to the county’s workers’ compensation costs, which totaled $324.4 million in the last fiscal year and are projected to reach $350 million this year.

At the city’s Fire Department, 42 of 203 retiring firefighters received a disability pension, according to the city’s Department of Fire and Police Pensions. The city did not immediately have figures on workers’ compensation claims prior to retirement.

A county audit that examined high levels of disability retirements among safety personnel in 2000 noted by comparison that the city employs a more restrictive pension policy than the county. The county follows state law’s presumption that firefighters and police officers who suffer from certain illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease, were injured on the job and thereby automatically qualify for a disability retirement.

The audit noted that the city, which can write its own pension rules, makes employees prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that the job was the “predominant cause of the disability.”

Dave Gillotte, president of the Los Angeles County Firefighters Assn. Local 1014, insisted that county firefighters were not taking undue advantage of pension and injury benefits.

“The injuries are real. These are not made up injuries,” Gillotte said. “Pointing the fingers at the workers and saying, ‘Hey! Their claims are suspect,’ is not the way to fix the system.”

The pace of disability retirements in Los Angeles County’s Fire Department has grown since the audit, which found that 64% of retiring firefighters secured a disability pension from 1998 to 2000. From 2001 to 2003, it was 74%. For all retired safety personnel, which also includes sheriff’s deputies and other officers, there are enormous differences from county to county.

Currently, 61% of retired safety personnel in Los Angeles County are on disability pensions, compared with 67% in San Diego. While in Ventura and Riverside, 39% retired with disability pensions.

“We had a four-pack-a-day smoker who was presumed to have cancer from his job,” said Paul Derse, a deputy executive administrator for Ventura County. “It is an issue.”

In Riverside County, Supervisor Bob Buster blamed the disability retirements in the county’s Sheriff’s Department for further straining an already stretched pension system.

“It’s getting to be a racket,” he said. “It is a big, big issue.”

Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Jean O. Pasco contributed to this report.


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