After hearing stories from several police and fire department retirees who said they were forced to retire because of job-related injuries, members of Lexington's Police and Fire Pension Board voted Wednesday to examine the possibility of creating positions for disabled workers.
Giving workers the option to stay would be a first step toward bringing the police and fire pension fund's mounting unfunded liability under control, and decreasing the numbers of officers and firefighters who retire early because of sometimes minor disabilities, board member Tommy Puckett said.
"We would still need to tweak the pension. Don't get me wrong. But this is a good starting point," Puckett said after Wednesday's pension board meeting.
In Lexington, police officers and firefighters can retire with a disability pension if they are not 100 percent fit for duty, even if their jobs are administrative and don't require them to chase criminals or fight fires. Often, people with minor disabilities — such as back or joint pain — retire without being given the option of taking a light-duty job, officials have said.
Before voting Wednesday, the board heard from four retirees who said they felt they had been "kicked out" of a job they loved because of injuries. One such police officer, Ian Roper, was injured when his cruiser was rear-ended in 2001.
Roper said his condition got worse in 2003, when he got a letter from the city informing him of his only options: apply for another job in city government, apply for medical leave until he returned to 100 percent fit for duty, apply for disability retirement or resign.
"I didn't want to leave," he said. "All I ever wanted to be was a Lexington police officer."
Roper, who said he now draws about $28,000 per year in disability pension, said he applied for several jobs in other areas of government, and he was turned down for all of them — even jobs he was well qualified for, such as a police dispatcher.
"I feel like I was kicked out the door, saying 'too bad, so sad, get lost,'" he said.
Many aspects of the pension fund are governed by Kentucky state law, but Puckett said there is nothing stopping the Urban County Council from creating a local ordinance that would allow injured workers to be absorbed into other departments and divisions. He made a motion to recommend the council immediately explore such a policy change.
However, acting Fire Chief Keith Jackson said the issue warranted a closer examination by the board before asking city council members to authorize new positions.
"We have to look at those active members who those positions will take away from," he said.
Pension board member Drew Short, a firefighter, said such a proposal could run afoul of state laws. For example, if someone were to get a job in a division other than police or fire, he or she would no longer be paying into the police and fire pension fund. He said a change could be made at the state level that would allow non-sworn employees to keep paying into the fund, but proposing changes to the Kentucky Revised Statutes would take time.
"I don't think we can solve this problem today," he said.
The board voted to create a subcommittee chaired by Public Safety Commissioner Clay Mason. Jackson, Police Chief Ronnie Bastin, who was absent from the meeting, police Sgt. Jonathan Bastian and fire Major Chris Sweat also were tapped to serve on the subcommittee.
Creating positions for disabled workers is among the issues being discussed by a separate pension task force created by Mayor Jim Gray. That task force, chaired by retired Herald-Leader publisher Tim Kelly, brought together stakeholders to propose changes that would reduce the pension fund's estimated $221 million unfunded liability.
Initially, the task force hoped to implement some short-term changes in time for this year's legislative session in Frankfort, but disagreements among council members, police and fire union representatives and city officials stalled those efforts.
The task force is now focusing on long-term, systemic changes, Kelly said.
Until then, Puckett said, the pension board would try to find its own solutions.
"The longer we can keep these people on the job, the more they will pay into the pension system, which will decrease the unfunded liability," he said. "It's common sense."