Lois Henry

Tuesday, Aug 03 2010 06:10 PM

LOIS HENRY: Fire chief to seek disability retirement

By Lois Henry

Soooo, it looks like Bakersfield City Fire Chief Ron Fraze, who just recently announced plans to retire in October, will be seeking a disability pension for injuries suffered on the job.

That would make his pension -- approximately 75 percent of his last highest salary -- tax-free for life.

He has a bad disc in his neck, Fraze told me.

"It's a job related injury from many, many years ago that's been an ongoing aggravation for me," he said. "I need to make sure it's covered in the future if it acts up again."

He didn't want to give any more specifics about the injury, such as when or how it happened.

"I know you're going to make it look like I'm gaming the system. But I'm not," he insisted. He's still sorting out his retirement paperwork and hasn't yet officially applied for the disability pension.

He worked for 25 years, he said, and is leaving at age 53, not 50 as others have done to take advantage of the controversial 3 at 50 retirement benefit.

"That irritates the heck out of me," he said. "People are so focused on the pension issue. A lot of people work really hard for the city and their work is just blown off."

Not that pension reform isn't an important issue, he quickly added. In fact, he personally thinks pensions "should be brought back into a more reasonable realm."

Hey, I'm not trying to make it look like anyone's gaming anything.

I'm willing to take Fraze at face value when he says he was hurt. Fighting fires isn't easy work.

I will, however, point out that an industrial disability means the person was hurt so badly on the job that they can't continue to perform that job.

The fact that Fraze has worked for however many years since the injury would indicate to me the injury wasn't disabling.

But that's not how it works.

For safety employees, police and fire, many injuries are presumptive and it doesn't matter when during their careers they occurred.

In fact, if Fraze gets the disability pension, he will join a long line of fire and police officials who've left at the end of their working lives on disability pensions.

And many, like Fraze, reached into the past for the injury that triggered the disability retirement.

To be fair, there are arguments supporting that practice.

Back in 1994, I worked on a project examining disability retirements and spoke with former Bakersfield Police Chief Bob Patterson, who retired on a disability in 1992 for an injury that occurred in the 1980s.

It was hypertension, Patterson told me. At one point he was hospitalized for it. His then boss, former Police Chief Bob Price, filed the paperwork to have the injury listed as job-related, otherwise insurance wouldn't have covered the costs, Patterson said.

When he retired years later, he used that incident to get the disability pension.

Patterson was unapologetic noting he, like Fraze, had put in a full career.

It's a good argument but I don't buy it.

Disability retirements were established by the state Legislature in the late 1930s to compensate public employees who could no longer do their jobs.

It was deemed tax-free because the pension amount was set at only 50 percent of the employee's salary.

After decades of twists and tweaks, however, the tax-free status now applies to 50 percent of an employee's salary or their full retirement amount, whichever is greater.

That's like the mother of all pension spikes just begging to be abused.

I can imagine it would be nearly impossible to resist.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at people.bakersfield.com/home/Blog/noholdsbarred, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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