The way Don Goldsberry sees it, the people of Nashville are still paying for the fact that he got on the wrong side of Metro police higher-ups in 1983.
“If you don’t agree with what’s going on with the administration, they’ve got ways to get rid of you,” said Goldsberry, who served on the force from 1969 until his bosses walked him through the process of obtaining a disability pension 14 years later, using his narcolepsy diagnosis as a pretext. Going before the Metropolitan Employee Benefit Board to be approved for the pension, he recalled, was a mere formality.
“I didn’t really want it, but it was either that or get fired,” the former cop said. He has now been drawing his pension for 27 years. It’s not much — just $10,800 a year, never adjusted for inflation — but it comes with lifetime coverage on Metro Nashville’s generous health insurance plan.
Goldsberry is one of 813 former city employees now receiving disability pay. Some 6.2 percent of all workers covered by Nashville’s public-employee retirement plan are on disability. The annual cost: $10.98 million in benefits, plus the portion of their health insurance paid for by Metro, which spends a total of $160 million a year on employee medical coverage.
A City Paper investigation of Metro pension records and other publicly available information suggests Nashville’s disability pension numbers are highly unusual. There appear to be vast disparities in benefit administration between Nashville and other jurisdictions around the country. For example:
• Metro Nashville taxpayers shell out seven times as much each year on disability pensions as do citizens in comparably sized Providence, R.I., which had only 100 ex-city workers on disability (3.2 percent of total employees) and spent $1.6 million to cover them in the fiscal year ending mid-2007. It’s hardly as though Providence is widely seen as a national model for efficient public administration: Former long-serving Mayor Buddy Cianci went to federal prison some years ago for racketeering in a case that also led to convictions for eight other members of his administration.
• King County, Wash., with Seattle as its county seat, has roughly three times the population of Metro Nashville. Yet its disability benefits support only 72 employees — 0.66 percent of the overall county workforce. In calendar year 2008, disability benefits cost King County $864,000, 13 times less than Nashville’s expense.
• On a larger scale, the Florida Retirement System, providing statewide disability coverage to workers at various levels of government, had nearly 700,000 members as of 2008 and administered about 15,000 disability pensions. That’s a ratio of 2.14 percent, implying that Florida is a third as obliging as Nashville in granting benefits.
A safety net for public servants
The whole point is supposed to be to help out our heroes. Beat cops, firefighters and others in city government take on high-risk tasks every day that can lead to serious injury. A disability pension is meant to compensate a worker for injuries received in the line of duty or medical conditions that make continued employment impossible.
The system provides at least minimal benefits to public servants such as Metro Police Officer Danita Marsh. Marsh was critically wounded and left paralyzed when a convicted murderer opened fire while she was working a domestic assault call in 2006. Her payments come to a mere $14,600 a year, although she also receives benefits from other sources.
Aside from the unquestionable fact that many of Metro’s disability recipients deserve every penny of the payouts awarded to them because of life-changing injuries they suffered on the job, other caveats regarding the city’s seemingly out-of-line pension practices are in order.
For one thing, the numbers aren’t as high as they once were. In January 2002, when Metro commissioned Kroll Background America Inc. to audit the disability system, it was serving 1,140 pensioners at a total annual cost of $13.1 million. (Report at this link.) The shrinking of the rolls may mean that two decades of fitful efforts to rein in waste, fraud and abuse in the program have produced significant results.
As well, some receiving disability pensions are returning to work.
“I think we are doing a better job of getting people back to work through rehab and vocational training,” said Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling. His figures show that 19 people on disability returned to jobs within Metro government last year.
The local situation may “appear out of line,” Riebeling said, but it will require “more thorough investigation” to determine the significance of the numerical discrepancies. “I’m not sure you can compare apples and apples here,” he added. “I’m not sure you can’t, but I don’t know that.”
State law may be partly to blame for the differences. In Tennessee, Riebeling noted, there is a statutory presumption that any public safety officer who becomes afflicted by an illness of the heart or lung has acquired it in the line of duty and is therefore eligible for disability benefits.
One more caveat: Because of the way the city’s old pension plan was structured, the pensions of some employees who retired on disability under that plan were converted into regular service pensions when they reached retirement age. The fact that those benefits still appear on the books as disability payments inflates Nashville’s totals somewhat, though exactly how much is not clear from available data.
How hurt are you?
Clearly, however, the difference between how Nashville defines “disability” and how other governments do so is a major cause of the discrepancies.
Metro’s employee handbook tells workers: “You are considered disabled if you are unable to perform your regular job as a result of an illness or accidental injury and suffer a loss of earnings.”
The Social Security Administration, on the other hand, defines disability as “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.”
Medical information on Metro’s disability pay recipients is confidential, but all are required to try to get Social Security disability benefits. Metro Department of Human Resources statistics indicate that some 40 percent — 329 out of 813 — do not qualify for Social Security disability.
Examination of disability programs in several municipalities and states suggests no clear consensus on definitions of disability, and Nashville is certainly not alone in pegging its definition to the employee’s ability to do his or her “regular job.”
Some jurisdictions are tougher, though. The Florida Retirement System’s standard for pension eligibility is that the applicant must be “totally and permanently disabled to the extent that they are unable to work in any job for any employer.” King County in Washington requires those seeking benefits to be “permanently and totally disabled.”
There is reason to suspect that Metro’s burgeoning disability rolls include recipients who have been gaming the system for years, further increasing its outlays. Most recipients are required to fill out a questionnaire every year, reporting to Metro Human Resources on their earnings from sources other than the pensions and on their health conditions and potential ability to return to their old jobs. Since the system requires benefits to be reduced if outside income is above a certain level, recipients can obtain more money than they should by failing to tell Metro about the other funds they earn.
Metro has been dealing with this issue since at least the 1990s. In 1996, WSMV-Channel 4 sent reporter Nancy Amons to California for an exposé showing that a former Metro cop was drawing a disability pension from Metro while working full time for San Jacinto’s police force. The 2002 Kroll audit identified 21 disqualified recipients whose net cost to the system was $450,000 a year, accounting for an estimated $7 million in lifetime benefits. Kroll suspected there were quite a few more.
Metro filed suit in December against former policeman Richard T. Bell, claiming he had fiddled the disability system for years starting in 1994, when he was granted a pension for injury in the line of duty. The lawsuit, available at this link, accused Bell of making “false and/or misleading representations” on a required annual disclosure of his earnings from sources other than the pension. His Social Security earning statements showed that the amounts he disclosed were well under the amounts he reported on his taxes.
Bell’s “pattern of fraudulent concealment” cost the city at least $89,000 in improperly paid benefits before it was discovered in 2008, Metro alleged. He is no longer receiving any pension.
Bell has not yet responded to the lawsuit. Efforts to reach him or his lawyer for this story were unsuccessful.
The City Paper’s investigation has turned up several cases in which disability pension recipients have maintained employment that should have, by all appearances, generated enough income to cause the reduction or elimination of their pensions. Because not all relevant facts are publicly available, the former Metro employees in question will not be identified in this story. They include:
• A person who has been on disability since the 1980s and has collected roughly $300,000 in benefits and yet has operated at least two retail businesses since 1998. One of those companies generated gross revenues of between $100,000 and $200,000 a year, according to corporate tax information included in this pensioner’s file, although it operated at a net loss.
• A man who has collected nearly $400,000 in disability benefits since he was granted a pension more than 15 years ago — but who identified himself in a 2005 news story as an employee and part-owner of a Nashville restaurant.
• An ex-Metro worker in the Nashville area who has been drawing a pension of almost $18,000 a year for more than a decade — and who is a practicing attorney.
In each of those cases, the individuals have filed all required documentation with Metro Human Resources, and its files do not indicate that they are under any suspicion.
Even in one case where the authorities went to court against a pension recipient who was operating a major local private-security business, forcing him to pay back $60,000 in improperly paid benefits, the pensioner remains on the rolls. Former cop C. Gary Mallory agreed to the settlement in 2008 — but its terms apparently did not include giving up his disability pension of $18,000 a year.
Mallory Security’s website currently describes Gary Mallory as its “owner” and “director of operations.” Efforts to reach him for this story were unsuccessful.