James Rufus Koren, Staff Writer
Posted: 08/21/2010 10:36:14 PM PDT

When James Espinosa of Chino retired from the Long Beach Fire Department, he was 56, had been a firefighter for 35 years and was fully vested in his public pension plan.

Espinosa, now vice president of the Chino Valley Independent Fire District board, retired eight years ago and was granted an industrial disability retirement, also called a medical retirement, meaning half of his pension is exempt from state or federal taxes.

The partially tax-free pensions are among the benefits afforded only to police, firefighters and some other public safety employees in the state as compensation for hazardous careers.

About 46 percent of Chino Valley Fire District firefighters who retired over the past 10 years received medical retirements.

That’s higher than the San Bernardino County average of 39 percent, but well short of the rate for the Fontana and Redlands police departments, where 62 percent and 65 percent of officers retiring in the past 10 years received medical retirements.

“In my case, that’s my right,” said Espinosa. “It’s built in the state government code to have those rights. Would you ask me, `Would you take half your retirement instead of all of it?’ That would be silly.”

Police and fire officials defend the number of medical retirements, saying public safety workers have dangerous, physically demanding jobs that often result in injuries.

But some local government officials seem annoyed by the number of medical retirements, and government watchdogs say the medical retirement system cheats ordinary taxpayers and looks like a possible haven for fraud.

“The job is pretty rigorous and pretty tough, physically, on the firefighters through their careers,” said Chino Valley Fire District Chief Paul Benson. “An awful lot (of injuries) seem to focus on the back and knees and joints. There’s a lot of moving heavy objects, making entry, dragging hose. It’s a very physically demanding job.”

Bill Abernathie, president of the San Bernardino County Safety Employees Benefit Association, which represents sheriff’s deputies and other county safety workers, said the union’s members are “exposed to many situations that put wear and tear on the body. … That’s why they set up the medical retirement system.”

In Redlands, where 65 percent of retiring police officers have taken medical retirements in the last 10 years, Councilman Mick Gallagher said he all too often sees cases in which officers seek a disability retirement only after they’ve reached their normal retirement age and maxed out their pensions.

“I can only really recall one medical retirement before retirement age,” Gallagher said. “The people who have retired this year, probably every one of them has come for a medical retirement at retirement age. … The ones who have retired in the last six or eight months, they’ve all retired and come back to ask for a medical retirement.”

The argument from Gallagher, other city officials and watchdog groups is not that police officers and firefighters don’t get hurt or that injured personnel should be denied benefits. Rather, it’s that it seems suspicious to give so many medical retirements to those able to work until standard retirement age.

“This has come to be known as `Chief’s Disease,”‘ said Adam Summers, a policy analyst for the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, a libertarian-leaning think tank. “The idea is that in the final year of working, they claim a disability and end up with greater benefits upon retirement.”

Police officers and firefighters reach their maximum pension benefit – 90 percent of their annual pay – after reaching age 50 or 55 and putting in at least 30 years of service.

In San Bernardino, former Police Chief Michael Billdt retired in 2009 after nearly 33 years with the department, then applied for a medical retirement last March. The city has hired an outside lawyer to investigate the case.

“To the critics of this, I’d say strap on a gun and a badge for 30 years,” Billdt said.

Ed Faunce, a Fallbook attorney who specializes in workplace disability issues, said public safety personnel who retire at 55 could be doing so because of chronic ailments that make work intolerable.

“If (an officer) takes his pension at 55, he could have worked making a full salary for another maybe 10 or 15 years,” Faunce said. “But what role did the constant low back pain … have in driving him to make the decision to take that retirement at the first chance he gets?”

Faunce also said the medical retirement system is “geared to make it hard” and that if it weren’t, many more public safety employees would receive medical retirements.

“I think there are a lot who don’t ask for (a medical retirement) who could qualify for it,” he said. “People don’t want to be associated with the sick, lame and lazy detail. They just suck it up and go to work.”

Disability retirement was created to keep police officers and firefighters from working when they were physically unable to perform their duties, Faunce said. The idea is to avoid keeping injured personnel on the payroll once they can no longer do genuine public safety work.

“Otherwise, you’re going to be paying a full-salary police officer to write reports,” Faunce said. “The cost to the employer goes up and the taxpayer has to foot the bill.”

The system might have good intentions, said the Reason Foundation’s Summers, but the percentage of medical retirements in some agencies raises questions about the process. In 2009, three of six Redlands police officers, 10 of 20 San Bernardino police officers and four of five Fontana police officers took medical retirements.

“It suggests there’s a little bit of fraud, or at least evidence of something untoward or gaming the system,” Summers said. “It’s suggesting the injuries they’re claiming are not as debilitating as we’re being led to believe.”

In San Bernardino, about 46 percent of city police and firefighters who retired since 2000 received a medical retirement. Councilman Fred Shorett said it’s not necessarily a sign of malfeasance, but he also said he’d like the city to look into the number of medical retirements being granted.

“I think when it’s around 50 percent, there’s something that doesn’t look exactly right,” he said. “You wouldn’t find that in the private sector.”

And San Bernardino, unlike some jurisdictions, sometimes challenges medical retirement applications. In Redlands, Gallagher said the city has not rejected a medical retirement claim in the four and a half years he’s been on the council.

“Even though the council would object at times … counsel said, `You will fight this and you will spend money on fighting this and you will lose,”‘ Gallagher said. “Not only that, the argument is that it doesn’t cost the city anything.”

But Shorett and San Bernardino City Attorney James F. Penman said medical retirements do cost taxpayers.

“The effect on the taxpayer is that the disability retirements for safety (employees) is … 50 percent tax free,” Penman said. “Other taxpayers are subsidizing them.”

Shorett said the tax break costs the state and federal government, which in turn costs everyone.

“If it’s costing the government, it’s costing us,” he said.

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