Click HERE for a story about abuse of the local firefighter disability system at Mehlville Fire Protection District.
by JEREMY KOHLER and DAVID HUNN • ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
February 19, 2012
Frank Palermo is a Webster University groundskeeper who has competed as a fourth-degree black belt in karate.
Joe Pree keeps order in a courtroom as a St. Louis sheriff's deputy.
Richard Griffard runs a financial services company that has managed $100 million in investments.
They share something in common: They retired early from the St. Louis Fire Department after the fire pension board ruled they were "totally and permanently incapacitated for duty."
The same could be said of about one out of every two retired St. Louis firefighters — 48 percent. All but a handful said their career-ending injuries occurred in accidents at work, helping them secure some of the nation's most generous disability pensions: 75 percent of the department's maximum salaries — tax free, for life, with annual raises.
On average, from 2001 through 2010, a firefighter who retired on disability was 42 — more than a decade younger than colleagues who retired based on years of service — and got a slightly bigger pension check that was tax-free.
Disability is supposed to be a safety net for those who risk their lives to keep the public safe, said Chief Dennis Jenkerson, a third-generation firefighter. The idea is that firefighters will be more aggressive — and save more lives — if they know an injury won't wreck their finances.
"But it's for the guys who truly get injured," he said.
With such incentives to retire, though, disability has become a costly entitlement program and a burden for taxpayers. A Post-Dispatch investigation found:
• Many disabled retirees go back to work, some to jobs that involve physical labor, and continue collecting their pensions.
• Firefighters rule the process. A longtime pension board member was also president of the firefighters union. Today, the eight-member board includes four active and two retired firefighters. The board has said its duty is to protect firefighters, not taxpayers.
•The pension board's longtime chairman acknowledges abuse in the disability system. But although the law empowers trustees to re-evaluate disabled retirees once a year, or reduce pensions for firefighters making more than allowed, the trustees almost never do.
• The city does not reassign firefighters who are capable of doing other city jobs. Meanwhile, it lays off workers, enforces furloughs and pay freezes and struggles to provide some services.
• Despite the high disability rates, the fire department has no fitness standards for active firefighters.
Mayor Francis Slay tweeted last week that "almost every municipal service in the future" depends on reducing the fire pension system's costs.
In a story last Sunday, the Post-Dispatch exposed how city leaders contributed to the crisis by adding benefits to a pension system that already could not meet its future obligations.
Today, using standard accounting methods, the pension system's unfunded liabilities total more than $100 million. Its auditor told the board Friday that the fund is in trouble. Disability payments make up nearly half of system's expenses, about $1.1 million a month.
No public official has succeeded in any effort to tackle the department's disability rate or substantially reduce costs.
Last year, the firefighters union backed a proposal to modify the pension by giving retirees with occupational disabilities five years of full pay, five years of college and a lifetime pension of 25 percent to 75 percent of pay, depending on years of service.
Chris Molitor, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local No. 73, said at the time he believed the proposed benefits would be less enticing to a firefighter considering a disability retirement.
"I think guys are going to try harder to stay on the job," he said.
But city budget officials said the plan didn't save taxpayers much. Slay killed the deal to draft broader changes introduced earlier this month.
Slay wants to dramatically reduce disability pensions for firefighters who are healthy enough to work somewhere else. His chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, said if that change is approved, "you will not see anywhere near one out of two people retiring for a disability."
Jenkerson said it irks "real firefighters," who work hard to overcome injuries, to know former colleagues are taking advantage. Without naming names, he said he thinks "there have been people who have come into the job with a focus more on the disability than the career of a firefighter."
"I won't put a percentage on it," he said. "But I will say some of the people who have gotten disabilities, if they would have wanted to be, could have been rehabbed and brought back, but they gave up."
Leonard Wiesehan, a firefighter who has been chairman of the pension board for 24 years, acknowledged abuse in the system but said "when you get three doctors who tell you (a) guy can't work anymore, it takes it out of our hands."
The fire department's disability rate far exceeds that of departments in San Antonio, Charlotte, N.C., and Phoenix. In fact, St. Louis has more firefighters on disability retirements than those three cities combined. The police department's disability rate is 10 percent.
There is no national standard for firefighter disability, and St. Louis does not have the highest rate. In San Jose, Calif., two out of three retired firefighters were on disability, a 2011 city audit found. Many of the disability cases were older firefighters who retired based on years of service and later were granted disability.
In Kansas City, about two out of five firefighters retired on disability, slightly less than in St. Louis and typically with a smaller payout.
Less than a third of the disability retirements in Kansas City are "duty" retirements that pay 62.5 percent of the department's maximum salaries. The rest were "nonduty" disability pensions that pay 25 percent of a firefighter's final salary plus 2.5 percent for every year served over 10 years.
Kansas City Fire Chief Richard "Smokey" Dyer said the pension board was protecting taxpayers by "really being stingy with line-of-duty injury pensions."
One major difference between St. Louis and many other cities is that the fire department expects every firefighter to be physically capable of fire combat after recovering from an injury — even if his job is inspecting buildings, working on an ambulance, investigating fires or teaching children to stop, drop and roll.
After a firefighter applies for a disability retirement, he is evaluated by three doctors chosen by Medical Services Management, based in Chesterfield, which works for the pension board. The company did not return calls.
The doctors determine whether a disability applicant can perform every firefighting task. They are provided a sheet of paper that lists firefighting duties and reminds doctors: "There are no part-time (jobs) or light-duty work in the fire service."
The pension board is not bound by the doctors' recommendations, but minutes of board meetings show it usually follows them.
In one exception, the board tried to block disability retirement for Earl Neal, an eight-year firefighter who refused to have surgery for a back injury. Neal appealed, and a circuit judge ruled in 1996 that the board could not ignore the medical board's findings and Neal wasn't obligated to undergo surgery to be entitled to a disability pension.
Neal retired at age 37 and became head of an ambulance district in Jefferson County and then of the ambulance district in Johnson County, Mo. A proclamation by the Missouri House in 2008 lauded his career of public service, as well as time spent as a youth football coach and baseball umpire.
In an interview, Neal said the ambulance-service jobs were administrative and didn't require physical strength. He said he "very rarely lifted patients up."
Without a doubt, the ranks of disabled retirees include firefighters who suffered serious, permanent injuries in the line of duty. Matt Held, 44, was crushed in a porch collapse in 2003. Now he walks with a cane, hunched and wincing with each step. A surgically implanted device delivers pain-relieving shocks to his spine.
His disability income of $3,700 a month helps him afford a small house on the South Side.
"If I didn't have this, I'd be living in a box," he said.
Jenkerson said he thinks doctors have little incentive to recommend denial of a disability retirement because they could be sued if the firefighter were reinjured.
Retiring on disability from other St. Louis city jobs is much more difficult. An employee of the forestry division, for example, must prove he can't hold down any kind of salaried job.
"It almost has to be a terminal situation," said Personnel Director Richard Frank.
But even when firefighters are capable of moderately heavy workloads, doctors will recommend they retire. Pvt. Romondo Battle, a three-year firefighter, injured his back while fighting a fire in 2008. Two months after surgery, his doctor found Battle could shoulder "medium-heavy" to "heavy" physical work, but not the "very heavy" firefighters' load, and recommended that he retire. The pension board agreed, and Battle retired at age 33 with plans to seek work as an aerospace mechanic, according to records in his workers compensation case.
If he lives to 78, the pension system will pay Battle about $2 million.
Battle confirmed the details of his injury in a telephone interview that was cut short when the line went dead. He didn't answer return calls.
Battalion Chief Cornelius Moore developed asthma and retired at age 44 in 1993 on a disability pension that currently pays him $63,000 tax-free a year.
Moore had 20 years with the department and would have qualified for a pension of roughly half that based on years of service. Heart and lung diseases and cancer are presumed to be line-of-duty disabilities in St. Louis. Because Moore's most recent physical had not flagged any breathing problems, the condition was presumed to have been job-related.
Even though Moore already had a management job in the fire department — as a battalion chief — he was awarded a disability pension under the rule that every firefighter must be combat-ready. So far, he has collected about $1 million in tax-free pension payments.
Interviewed recently, he said he had to retire in 1993 "because I was sick at the time."
Moore got a job as a security guard for the Department of Homeland Security. He then applied to be chief of the Robertson Fire Protection District in North County. Moore said it had been his dream to be a fire chief.
"Being a fire chief means running the department," he said. "It's strictly administrative. He doesn't necessarily have to be on the scene, and even if he's at the scene he isn't going to be in harm's way."
NO LIGHT DUTY
Over the years, the city has cut hundreds of workers and some city services — such as its animal shelter — almost entirely. Even the fire marshal's office lags in reviewing plans for sprinklers and smoke detectors.
Jenkerson said he did not 'see any problem" with moving some disabled firefighters into less demanding city jobs as an alternative to giving them lifetime disability pensions. "Most of the doctors when you get done looking at the (disability candidate) say that this individual is capable of gainful employment but just not at the level of a firefighter."
Molitor, the union head, said, "That has never been proposed by anyone in the mayor's office. If they have a proposal, we are certainly willing to listen."
However, Rainford insisted that moving disabled firefighters to other jobs would not save money.
In Atlanta, a disability pension is considered a last resort for firefighters who can still work.
"Today if I was to get hurt and I couldn't perform a firefighter duty, I would get put in somewhere in the city at the same pay … but I could not be a sworn firefighter," said Atlanta Assistant Chief Michael Simmons.
Joe Pree got another job in the city — but he gets his disability pension, too.
While moving a hose line to the second floor of a stairway in 1992, a firefighter ahead of Pree fell through a stairway and landed on Pree's left knee.
Pree, who retired in 1993 at the age of 38, said a surgeon removed a ligament and a tendon from his knee. He settled a workers comp case against the city for $12,000, and makes a $52,500 disability pension.
"I am physically not capable of being a firefighter," he told a reporter in a brief interview outside a St. Louis courtroom.
Pree, 57, started work for the sheriff's department in 2000. He said he applied because he needed health insurance. He makes $30,400, records show, transporting prisoners between jail and court, and securing the courtroom.
Pree said his most difficult task is walking into the court, but in 2008, he became involved in a struggle with an unruly inmate, hit his head on a wall and suffered a back injury. The city settled his workers compensation case for $5,000.
He said he plans to work until Social Security benefits — earned from other noncity jobs — kick in a decade from now. By that time, he also would collect a second city pension.
The left knee has continued to cause him problems — and cost the city money. While escorting prisoners in 2005, he turned sharply, heard a pop in the knee and felt pain, records show. He settled that claim against the city for $13,000.
NO FITNESS STANDARD
Paradoxically, while the fire department has exacting standards for the fitness of injured firefighters, it has none for uninjured firefighters.
Firefighters take a physical exam every five years to determine the health of heart, lungs and bones, but have no requirements for speed, strength or endurance.
St. Louis is missing out on a national movement to keep firefighters healthier and safer, experts say. The International Association of Fire Chiefs says a firefighter fitness initiative is one of its top priorities.
The association supports a training program and regular fitness evaluations for active firefighters.
"Our goal is to say you're a more fit firefighter, better prepared to do your job and less likely to be injured," said Matthew Tobia, a battalion chief for the Anne Arundel County Fire Department in Maryland, and a spokesman for the fire chiefs association.
Charlotte, with a disability rate of about 12 percent, is one of several departments that have embraced the idea. "Disability is not a good thing here," said Deputy Chief Rich Granger. "It's a necessary evil on a very rare occasion if somebody gets injured that bad."
Jenkerson said forcing firefighters to take a fitness test every five years would "absolutely" cut down on career-ending injuries.
"People say there needs to be an incentive for firefighters," he said. "There (would be) an incentive — you get to remain in the pension system."
A disabled former firefighter can't earn more in a second salary than his pension. The pension board can ask for the tax returns of people earning disability pensions to see if they are making too much money.
But Vicky Grass, executive director of the pension board, said that rarely happens.
"On occasion — and it has been a very long time — we request that they send in their tax returns," said Grass. "It's been a long time since we've done it."
Richard Griffard retired from the fire department with a disability in 1988 at age 38. He said he had surgery to remove bones from two injured wrists and that the department told him to retire. He said he cannot even button a shirt.
In 2001, he founded the Sunset Hills firm Saxony Securities, according to documents filed with the secretary of state.
Today, Griffard is listed as the president.
Griffard, 61, said the pension board has never checked his income. He declined to discuss his salary but said in most of the years since his retirement he did not make more than his pension.
"If you think I got filthy rich off my fire department pension and what little I'm making here, you need to rethink it," he said.
Several other disabled retirees own businesses. Douglas Mueller just recently sold his safety consulting business, Safety Technologies and Solutions LLC. He told a reporter he did not make much money with the business. John Kuehner owns a south St. Louis wine bar, 3500 Winehaus. Retiree Mike Dinzebach owns a home-remodeling firm in St. Charles that has worked for the ABC show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."
Neither Kuehner nor Dinzebach returned calls for comment.
Are they entitled to disability pensions?
The pension board doesn't know because it doesn't ask.
The trustees also rarely ask that disability recipients be re-evaluated for possible return to duty.
Said Wiesehan: "Experience has shown that the doctors will not change their opinions, and each time we do that it's an added cost to the system."
Chief Jenkerson knows of at least two firefighters he would like to see assessed.
Baby Ray Webber Jr. and Dedrick Harris each retired on disability for post-traumatic stress disorder after two fire engines T-boned in a spectacular collision in October 2008. A firefighter was hospitalized for a head injury.
Harris retired in September 2009 at age 43 and Webber a year later at age 35. Each gets an annual tax-free pension of $43,471.
"It's cliché to say it, but it comes with the job," Jenkerson said. "It's what you get paid for. You see a lot of atrocities over 25 years with the fire department. You see things that people can't even imagine ...
"There are all types of counseling available. I guess sometimes it's just easier to say, 'Yep, I'm done, I'm not going to work at it, I'm not going to try to get back.'"
Webber declined to comment. By retiring on disability, he followed his father's footsteps: Baby Ray Webber Sr. retired on disability in 1992 at age 46. The elder Webber could not be reached for comment.
Harris settled a workers' compensation claim against the city for $30,000 and is suing the captain of his engine company in circuit court, alleging he gave an order to run a red light.
In an interview, Harris said that the crash was so traumatic "it flicks a switch on/off inside of you to where you don't want to be in that situation again."
Harris got a new job where he doesn't have to ride fire engines.
He drives a MetroLink train.