Embattled Lexington Fire Chief applies for disability pension

Fire Chief under pressure to resign already has one Lexington pension

bfortune@herald-leader.comMay 12, 2011 

Embattled Lexington Fire Chief Robert Hendricks, who has been on paid leave since the mayor asked for his resignation, has now applied for a permanent and total disability pension.

Hendricks' application for a disability pension went in front of the city's police and fire pension board Wednesday morning.

The board voted to consider Hendricks' application, but there are several steps remaining in the disability pension process, including medical evaluations by two doctors.

On his application, Hendricks has to reveal the nature of his medical problem and state whether it is occupation-related. This medical information is considered private, and none was made public at Wednesday's meeting.

Two months ago, Mayor Jim Gray asked Hendricks to resign. When he did not, Gray asked the city's law department to compile charges against Hendricks in an effort to seek his dismissal. The mayor then appointed an interim chief.

Hendricks, who has not commented publicly since the mayor asked him to resign, was seen in the lobby of the Government Center Wednesday morning, but he did not come into the room where the pension board was meeting.

Pension board member Tommy Puckett, retired from the police department, said several steps have to be followed in applying for disability. Hendricks must have a doctor's statement saying he has sought medical help but his condition will not improve.

Since the pension board voted to consider his request, Hendricks must be evaluated by two doctors hired by the pension board. This independent assessment usually takes about three months, Puckett said.

After receiving the evaluation, the pension board will vote on whether to grant the disability pension. Puckett said the board follows the doctors' recommendation "the vast majority of times."

Hendricks remains on full paid leave while the steps of the process are followed.

In 2002, then-Mayor Teresa Isaac introduced Hendricks to the pension board, saying she wanted to hire him as the city's fire chief. Hendricks had spent two decades at the Lexington fire department, retiring in 1997 as a district major. He then became Georgetown's fire chief.

Hendricks was drawing a Lexington service (retirement) pension when Isaac asked that he be hired back as chief. "My suggestion was to stop his service pension," Puckett said. "But she wanted him to receive his service pension and pay his salary. And she wanted to let him come back as a new employee and pay into the pension fund again."

It was pointed out at that 2002 meeting that if Hendricks got hurt, "he could get a second pension, possibly," Puckett said.

Both Hendricks and Isaac assured the pension board he would not do that, Puckett recalled.

"The pension board allowed him to come back, and pay into the pension fund again," Puckett said. "Now he has put in for disability."

"I like Bob Hendricks. He's a nice guy," Puckett said. "But it's always been in the back of my mind he would apply for disability somewhere down the line and get a second pension from our pension fund."

Attempts to reach Hendricks for comment were not successful after the board meeting Wednesday.

As chief, Hendricks was the highest-paid city employee based on salary alone, making $148,379.

"If he is found to be injured, he could receive 60 to 75 percent of his salary as a fire chief," Puckett said, depending on the severity of his injury, plus his retirement pension. "We're talking well over $100,000 a year" from the two pensions "for the rest of his life," Puckett said.

"He'll receive that every year the rest of his life. If he lives to 80 years old, that's about 20 years; that's $2 million, " Puckett said.

Asked if $2 million would have an impact on the police and fire pension fund, Puckett said, "My gosh, yes."

Funding the police and fire pension system has been a big issue for the city in recent years. Mayor Gray's budget proposal includes $30 million in debt to help fund the system, which has an unfunded liability of $225 million.

Questions have been raised about some police and fire disability pensions, including a 2005 Herald-Leader investigation of the pension system that, among other things, found several cases of police officers who ran into trouble with the law or departmental policy but received disability pensions before internal investigations could be completed.

Efforts to dismiss Hendricks began on Feb. 28, when Gray said a change was needed because of a "lack of leadership, failure to manage the division's budget, especially overtime, and division morale."

The mayor gave Hendricks until noon the next day to make a decision. When Hendricks did not step down, Gray sought charges against the chief that could be presented at a formal hearing seeking his dismissal.

After Wednesday's pension meeting, which Gray chaired, Gray was asked whether the city was moving forward with efforts to dismiss Hendricks. The mayor said the fire chief's application for disability and the steps the pension board must follow "take precedent over other actions."

Charges have been prepared in the city's case for dismissing Hendricks, but the charges have not been filed, city spokeswoman Susan Straub said after the pension meeting.

"We are ready to file them as soon as federal law allows us to do so," Straub said. "It's hard to understand employment law, but that might take as long as this summer."

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