Faced with the embarrassing revelation that a controversial city program practically encouraged retirement-age police officers and firefighters to collect disability payments instead of retiring, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti needed to make dramatic changes to end the abuse. What he and labor negotiators came up with, however, was a tweak.
The Deferred Retirement Option Plan, or DROP, was designed to keep badly needed senior personnel on the job by paying them salaries and pensions simultaneously for the last five years of their careers. But a Times investigation earlier this year found that many officers and firefighters file disability claims soon — sometimes within days — after signing up for DROP. Some spend months and even years on disability, often for routine, age-related problems, including high blood pressure, carpal tunnel syndrome and joint pain.
The system almost invites abuse: Workers can all but retire for long stretches of time — by going on disability leave — without actually retiring, allowing them to collect their salaries while also banking their pension payments. Meanwhile, the city has to pay other workers to fill their shifts.
DROP is a pricey program that has outlived its usefulness.
In August, Garcetti announced a proposed change to discourage misuse. The program would suspend pension payments to any officer or firefighter in DROP who does not work at least 112 hours on active duty in any given month — that’s about two weeks for a firefighter and nearly three weeks for a police officer. The rule would be waived for employees who sustain an injury in the line of duty that puts them in the hospital for three days or longer.
It’s a common-sense change, but a fairly moderate one too. So are the savings. A new analysis says the tweak would save about $13 million in the first year. That’s less than 1% of the police and firefighter payroll. And because there is uncertainty over how the change might affect the program, analysts said it would be safer to assume annual savings of about $7 million going forward.
This is just tinkering. Garcetti ought to be trying to eliminate the double-dipping program altogether.
DROP was proposed nearly two decades ago as a lucrative enticement to persuade veteran LAPD officers to stay on the force amid the Rampart corruption scandal. But retention isn’t much of a problem today — especially not for the Los Angeles Fire Department, which has no problem recruiting or retaining firefighters.
DROP has been controversial from the beginning. There is no screening of applicants, nor any assessment of whether their skills are needed. There were early reports that some fire and police personnel were abusing the program by filing for disability shortly after enrolling, and analysts found workers filed “significantly” more injured-on-duty claims while they were in DROP.
But the program is popular with officers and firefighters, so their politically powerful unions have defended it. No wonder why. Just look at LAPD Chief Michel Moore, who quietly retired in January after five years in DROP, collected his $1.27-million DROP check and then returned to his $299,000-a-year job under a maneuver called the “bounce.” He was hired as chief shortly thereafter. It’s both perfectly legal and a misuse of taxpayer dollars.
Garcetti’s office said the mayor believes DROP is a valuable program that helps attract and retain the best personnel. Los Angeles Fire and Police Pensions staff is now evaluating whether DROP adds to the city’s costs, as it seems to do. If it does, Garcetti’s office said, he would attempt to negotiate changes with unions to make the program cost neutral.
Good luck with that. Cities across the country have abandoned their DROP programs amid ballooning pension costs and reports of abuse. It’s hard to believe that L.A. will be able to justify the expense. DROP is a pricey program that has outlived its usefulness.