Thursday, May 07, 2009

What the Post Does Not Want You to Know About Disability

We will give anti-government employee Post intern Steven Stein credit for one thing: he’s a persistent young man. His latest editorial attacks a County Council compromise on the disability issue as “an unacceptable outcome that would speak to the undue influence that union leaders exert over some council members.” But Stein has been sitting on a significant number of facts that, if known to Washington Post readers, would paint the issue in a far different light.

Last fall, Stein contacted the Fraternal Order of Police about the disability program, which was then the subject of a report by Montgomery County’s Inspector General Thomas Dagley. The police provided him the research below which showed that the number of officers retiring on disability has averaged 11 per year since 1985. Those officers include managers who are not in the bargaining unit.

The police updated this data and provided it again to the Post. Through 2008, disability retirements only accounted for 1.2% of the county’s actual sworn officers. The percentage in 2008 (1.0%) is the lowest since 2004. It’s difficult to portray the system as “absurd” or “outrageous” when it is so seldom used. Neither Stein nor Washington Post reporter Ann Marimow have ever revealed this data to their readers.

Another point that Stein refuses to discuss is that the Inspector General’s report primarily relates to management oversight. Dagley states in his enclosure letter:

The findings relate to the need for the Office of Human Resources (OHR) to improve internal controls and management oversight to ensure SCDR [service-connected disability retirement] benefits are protected against abuse, and for the Department of Police to ensure compliance with medical examination program requirements and related standards regarding the health status and functional capabilities of police officers.
The report went on to recommend improving “internal controls and management oversight” and ensuring periodic medical examination procedures. The first issue is under the direct control of department management. The second issue has actually earned the agreement of the police union, who presented a proposal calling for mandatory medical reexaminations overseen by a Disability Review Board of 4 impartial doctors. Their proposal, which has been ignored by Stein but printed on this blog entry, appears below.

Several months ago, County Council Members Phil Andrews and Duchy Trachtenberg proposed a bill calling for a two-tier disability system, a measure that was not suggested by the Inspector General’s report. The Post promptly endorsed the bill. But in bashing the police union and the “spinelessness” of the bill’s critics, Stein ignored the Post’s own reporting identifying two Assistant Police Chiefs who benefited from the system. Those Assistant Chiefs are not members of the union bargaining unit and were directly supervised by MCPD Chief Tom Manger. Where are the anti-Manger editorials?

As the bill advanced, the County Council’s staff produced two memos on its legality and effects. The staff estimated that the savings from a move towards a two-tier system would amount to “more than $1.5 million” based on the experience of the career Fire Fighters’ move to such a system in 2002. First, that amount equals just 0.26% of the county’s $587 million budget deficit and 0.03% of the $4.3 billion operating budget. Second, the Fire Fighters’ experience should be considered in light of the fact that they negotiated a new deferred retirement option plan at the same time they went to a two-tier disability system.

Here’s another fact that Stein has never told his readers: the police union itself offered a three-tier system starting with 2009 hires to the County Executive, as we show in their proposal above. That would establish a similar system for the police as currently prevails for the career Fire Fighters. Stein also never gives credit to the union for giving back its 4.25% general wage adjustment, a move that saved the county $4.9 million. If the union is as greedy and obstructionist as Stein would have us believe, what can explain these concessions?

Stein’s views are rooted in his characterization of collective bargaining as a “ruse.” He prefers that the County Council unilaterally set working conditions for employees, which is the same position as all employers who oppose workplace democracy. If Steven Stein knew anything about Montgomery County, he would remember that county employee collective bargaining was approved by multiple charter amendments that attracted overwhelming support from voters. Most of our residents do not believe that employees should get everything they want, but they do believe employees should have a voice at work. As an intern who is one year out of college and has no acquaintance with our history and politics, Stein does not appreciate that basic fact.

Finally, let’s go back to the Inspector General’s report, which started this entire debate. It identified the disability issue as a management oversight issue requiring corrective action by management. Chief Manger is free to tighten oversight of the system and the police union – by its own written proposal – agrees with that goal. But because of the overlapping anti-government employee agendas of intern Steven Stein, the Washington Post Company and multiple members of the Montgomery County Council, the issue has mutated into an attack on labor. The County Council is on the verge of settling the matter through an amendment proposed by Council Member George Leventhal codifying some items agreed to by both management and labor and sending the rest back to bargaining. A reasonable compromise may therefore be in reach.

That would be good for the county. Too bad that it’s not good for the Boy King’s crusade against the men and women in our government service.