Fire, police disability fund is a growing source of city concern

Forty-three-year-old Ray Pratt was almost kept out of firefighting work for good after he strained his back during a rescue at Washington Park four years ago.

Although he was able to receive disability benefits at 75 percent of his base salary from the Fire and Police Disability and Retirement Fund, he tried to return to work twice, only to re-injure his back both times.

'A fireman is kind of a proud job,' he said. 'It's just a way of life. When you're on disability, there's no pride there. It's like you're a quitter, a weenie.'

It's only through working in one of three available light-duty positions at the Fire Bureau that Pratt recently was able to advance to become a full-time fire inspector and continue his career.

Ending his disability claim early also meant savings to the city's fire and police disability system, which costs taxpayers more than $13 million per year.

Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Randy Leonard agree that the city needs to take steps to return employees to work earlier. Increasing the number of light-duty positions available (the Police Bureau has none) and offering incentives to the police and fire bureaus for them to do so are two possibilities.

But the two commissioners have been butting heads over how to tackle the issue. The conflict Ñ the first significant rift in the new city administration Ñ may surface at a public hearing on the issue scheduled for Jan. 26 at City Hall.

Saltzman plans to introduce a resolution that would create a nine-member citizen committee to oversee an independent analysis of the fund. The proposed committee would report back to the City Council in August with any recommendations, including changes to the disability fund's charter.

Saltzman will ask the city to spend $120,000 for several consultants who would look into the long-term costs of the fund, ways to fund the system and ways to cut disability costs.

He wants to evaluate whether it makes sense to enroll new employees in the state Public Employees Retirement System instead, and compare Portland's program to other comparable systems.

The Fire and Police Disability and Retirement Fund, which provides benefits to more than 3,000 city firefighters and police officers, is supported by a citywide property tax levy Ñ established in 1948 Ñ that costs the average homeowner about $300.

City financial officials call it an unfunded liability that would cost the city $1.3 billion if dropped today. By letting the liability grow, they said, the property tax levy that pays for the fund will reach its threshold and the city's general fund will have to pick up the gap between what the levy generates and what the fund requires.

What's the plan?

Leonard has proposed changes to Saltzman's plan, saying he would co-sponsor the resolution if they were accepted. 'I can't support Dan's approach,' he said. 'It's a failed approach that will cause the whole analysis to collapse.'

Specifically, Leonard has asked for:

• The timeline to be pushed back from Aug. 1 to Jan. 1, 2006, due to the complexity of the issue. Saltzman said he wants to keep the timeline for the work to five or six months because it would be more difficult to recruit committee members for a longer stretch of time.

• The committee members to be appointed by both Leonard and Saltzman, rather than Saltzman alone. Saltzman said he has asked other commissioners for suggestions with his list of nominees, which he'll ask the City Council to approve. Under Saltzman's plan, seven would have backgrounds in disability and retirement issues and two would represent the fire and police unions; he also may include the fire chief and police chief as nonvoting members of the committee on a rotating basis.

• More involvement from the pension board. Leonard wants both the pension board and Office of Management and Finance to share in funding the study and staffing the group. Saltzman said he would look at that idea and hasn't ruled anything out yet.

'Hard questions'

Even if the council reaches consensus, there is still much resistance from members of the pension fund.

Some thought the proposed budget of $120,000 for Saltzman's proposed study was too small, and fund manager Babette Heeftle suggested the scope of the study was too large.

'There are some hard questions they have to answer,' she said. 'There are a million things we can study now about FPD&R. It's taken us three to four months to take one little subject and come back with recommendations for charter change. So how thorough do you want the committee to be?'

Portland Police Association secretary-treasurer Leo Painton said he and Leonard believe that any discussion of funding the system will boil down to the question of raising taxes to support or replace the property tax levy.

'Unless you're not committed to raise taxes, don't waste everybody's time,' Painton said. 'I absolutely believe that.'

Saltzman disagreed. 'I want to be more informed by having an in-depth analysis, get everyone on the same platform of information,' he said.

Whatever direction the council takes, firefighters and police officers are desperately hoping that the city will retain their benefits through the fund.

Portland police officer Chris Barker is currently on disability leave and trying to return to work part-time after being shot in the hand in the line of duty three years ago. He said, 'I do hope and pray that the city would take care of its officers Ñ those officers that go out and put their life on the line every day and something tragic happens to them.'

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