Some of the huge annual cost increases in the Firemen's Retirement System have to do with investments made by its board that did not perform as well as the board had predicted. Anyone with a 401(k) can sympathize. Being overlooked in the wider discussion of the system's unsupportable weight, however, are the increased costs to taxpayers due to rules of the disability mechanism ' and their occasional abuse.
Let's agree, strongly, that a firefighter injured on the job should be treated fairly. Let's also agree that a firefighter who is too disabled to work should receive his full pension.
Moving on from that agreement, I support this: that a firefighter who can no longer work as a firefighter, but is healthy enough to work in the private sector, should have that reality taken in to account when his (or her) pension is calculated; and, that, for a firefighter healthy enough to do other work, his time in the fire service also ought to affect his disability pension.
Under the current law, if doctors and the FRS trustees decide a firefighter is too disabled to be a firefighter, he (or she) gets a full pension'no matter how young he is, and even if he is healthy enough to do work in the private sector. As a result, relatively young firefighters often retire with a full, lifetime pension, and then start second careers in the private sector. And, among that group, are some people who have gamed the system.
Under current rules, almost half of all retired firefighters went out on disability. (Compare that to just 11 percent for St. Louis police officers.)
Changes I have proposed to the Firemen's Retirement System would address these issues.
If a firefighter is too disabled to work, he (or she) would get a full pension. That is our moral duty and civic obligation. However, if he is too disabled to be a firefighter but can do other work, he would get a much smaller pension. The shorter the time working for the fire department, the smaller the disability pension he would get.
In addition, if a firefighter who retires on disability starts earning more between his (or her) pension and private sector income than he would as an active firefighter, his pension would be reduced. If a firefighter gets both a pension and workers' compensation, his pension would be reduced. If the doctors say he could get better, he would have to come back for periodic medical examinations. Finally, evidence of habitual smoking would be considered when determining whether a firefighter's lung damage was caused by the job or not.
These changes will assure that firefighters who really need a disability pension get one. But, they will also put rules and regulations in place to reduce abuse. The changes are fair to firefighters, and to the people paying the bills.