Fire chief exposes flawed pension system

Fire Chief Robert Hendricks may yet serve as a force for reform by illuminating practices that have made Lexington's fire and police pension policies unaffordable and unsustainable.

Hendricks' application for total disability is especially outrageous; he seemed perfectly able to work until Mayor Jim Gray asked him to resign.

But it's typical of a common expectation that exiting the fire or police forces in Lexington will come with lifelong tax-free disability checks.

The frequency of disability pensions is a contributor to the $225-million unfunded liability in the city's police and fire pension fund.

Hendricks also would not be the first to evade disciplinary proceedings by filing for disability.

A 2005 investigation by Herald-Leader reporters found that, in a number of instances, police officers accused of wrongdoing went to the pension board before they could be suspended, demoted or fired and started receiving disability pensions, including an officer who pleaded guilty to a serious crime and went to prison.

At that time, 36 percent of Fayette County police and fire retirements were due to disability, compared with 2 percent for the Kentucky State Police.

In 2008, a task force reported that 42 percent of Lexington police and fire retirements were because of disability, compared with about 8 percent for the statewide County Employees Retirement System which includes police and fire.

Also concerning is the prevalence of relatively minor disabilities. The 10-year average disability rating for Lexington police and firefighters who retired on disability was just 13 percent.

Hendricks, who has been on paid leave since refusing Gray's request to resign in late February, already draws a Lexington firefighter's pension after retiring as a district major in 1997.

He served as Georgetown's fire chief before Mayor Teresa Isaac brought him back as chief. He was paid $148,379, as overtime costs in the fire department soared.

If Hendricks is found to be disabled and lives another 20 years, his two pensions could cost $2 million, pension board member Tommy Puckett told Herald-Leader reporter Beverly Fortune.

Asked if $2 million over 20 years would have an impact on the already underfunded pension fund, Puckett said, "My gosh, yes."

Lexington borrowed $100 million last year to shore up the police and fire pension fund. Despite the city's strapped finances, Gray and the Urban County Council must keep working to fill the $225-million hole and make the pension fund whole.

Doing that will also require plugging leaks that stem from the high rate of disability awards and are a drain on the fund.

That will require action by the legislature, which has the power to set pension rules for Lexington but no responsibility to pay for them.

No one can begrudge an injured firefighter or police officer compensation, which is why the pension fund must be protected.

Those who put life and limb on the line to protect the public deserve to know their pensions will be there when they need them.