Crime

Lexington fire chief denied second pension, no longer being paid

Fire chief Robert Hendricks left council chambers after his  disability pension was denied by the police and fire pension board. Mayor Jim Gray asked for Hendricks' resignation in February.
Fire chief Robert Hendricks left council chambers after his disability pension was denied by the police and fire pension board. Mayor Jim Gray asked for Hendricks' resignation in February.

Shortly after Lexington's police and fire pension board voted Wednesday to deny a disability pension for embattled fire Chief Robert Hendricks, the city announced it planned to move forward in seeking his dismissal.

The city also announced Hendricks, who took full paid leave after the mayor requested him to resign in February, was no longer being paid.

Susan Straub, spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Gray's office, said in a news release that Hendricks "exhausted his accumulated paid leave time on Sept. 13 and went on unpaid leave, beginning Sept. 14."

At a work session on Tuesday, the release said, the Urban County Council will be asked to set a hearing date to consider charges that the administration will file seeking Hendricks' dismissal. The council will make the final decision concerning Hendricks.

Citing lack of leadership, low division morale and a drastically exceeded overtime budget, Gray publicly asked Hendricks to resign in February. Hendricks did not resign, and efforts to seek his dismissal were stalled after he requested a disability pension in May.

Hendricks had requested a disability pension because of a psychiatric ailment, his attorney said. He already receives a pension, having retired from the fire department in 1997. He was rehired as chief in 2002.

On Wednesday, members of the police and fire pension board unanimously denied Hendricks' application for a disability pension. The motion to deny was introduced by human resources director Leslie Jarvis and seconded by Lexington police Chief Ronnie Bastin. The rest of the board then voted in favor of the motion based on the reports of three doctors who examined Hendricks.

Two of the three reports did not support Hendricks' claim that he was totally and permanently disabled, said Tommy Puckett, a retired police officer who serves on the board. Puckett said he could not elaborate because Hendricks' medical issues are private under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

After the meeting, Mark Wohlander, Hendricks' attorney, spoke publicly on Hendricks' behalf for the first time since the chief was asked to resign. He said Hendricks' disability was psychiatric in nature, but Wohlander didn't elaborate.

Wohlander said there were no hard feelings on the part of Hendricks. He said there would be further discussions with the city.

"The process is what the process is. We don't have any argument with it," he said. "We did what we thought was correct."

Things are "tough" for Hendricks, Wohlander said. Hendricks doesn't hold a grudge, but he is disappointed in the way the request for his resignation was handled, Wohlander said.

"I would have hated to get up my last morning of work and read on the front page that they're getting rid of me for something I didn't do and to make those allegations before they had any support for them," Wohlander said.

In July, the board delayed the final decision on Hendricks' pension because of "discrepancies" between two medical diagnoses presented to the board. They later asked that he see a third doctor as a sort of tie-breaker, Puckett said.

Had the board approved Hendricks' request, it would have been his second pension — an issue that was raised by other board members.

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 as a Lexington firefighter, retiring in 1997 as a district major. He then became Georgetown's fire chief.

Board members said Isaac was told at that 2002 meeting that if Hendricks got hurt, he could get a second pension. Hendricks and Isaac assured the pension board he would not do that, Puckett has said.

Hendricks could have received 60 percent to 75 percent of his salary as a fire chief — tax-free — for the rest of his life, depending on the severity of his injury, plus his retirement pension.

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

Now that his request has been denied, Puckett said, Hendricks could request a rehearing to address the pension board, review the documents and further discuss his ailments. Wohlander says Hendricks' personal physician has said Hendricks' ailments should qualify him for a disability.

Hendricks has 20 days to appeal the decision, Puckett said. The pension board would then set a date to rehear the case.

Wohlander and Hendricks had not received copies of any of the doctors' reports despite repeated requests to the city, Wohlander said. Puckett, however, said the reports have to be made available before a rehearing.

After Wednesday's meeting, Gray said the denial of Hendricks' pension shows "awareness of the issues" surrounding Lexington's police and fire pension system.

The fund's unfunded liability is estimated at $221 million, and the total liability of the fund, including medical expenses and bonded debt, is estimated at $536 million, more than twice the city's annual general fund budget, according to a release from the city.

Gray said part of the system's runaway costs are due to the high number of police and firefighters retiring with disability pensions, which allow them to retire before they have served 20 years and paid into the system for as long.

"That's going to take our cost basis up compared to other cities, and in many respects that's an unfair burden on our taxpayers," he said.

In the release, Gray attributed many of the pension system's problems to the fact that the system is paid for locally but governed at the state level.

Gray has created a task force to discuss pension reform. A subcommittee of the pension board also has taken up the task.

"All efforts in the past to overhaul our system have not had the support of fire and police and, therefore, were dead on arrival in Frankfort," he said. "Police and fire representatives will play a central role in the new task force."

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