Council vote could force 2 officers into medical retirement

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 10, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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City Council members extended injury leave for two catastrophically wounded police officers Tuesday night, but the vote ensured that officers wounded in the future will receive more limited pay and benefits.

During a confusing series of votes and dialogue in which several council members first said that they had to support the officers, members voted 8-0 on a final motion, with Councilman Sal Espino absent.

The vote put Fort Worth in compliance with state law that the staff said required the city to “offset” workers’ compensation payments and line-of-duty-injury pay to ensure that officers won’t receive more than their normal salary.

The vote could force medical retirement after two years for officer Lisa Ramsey and will likely force it for Richard Lambing in two years. For Ramsey, that would mean substantially reduced benefits compared with the full retirement she would gain if she can hang on with the city through November 2018.

Sgt. Steve Hall, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, said the city is sending a message to officers that it won’t stick by them if they wind up in the same situation.

“It’s just a continuation of a message that’s been resonating out of City Hall for the last year and a half,” including the council’s major changes to the employee pension last fall, Hall said in an interview.

The city has been paying Ramsey, shot and paralyzed while trying to arrest a drug suspect 10 years ago, part of her salary representing 20 hours a week worked; line-of-duty-injury leave; and lifetime workers’ comp benefits.

The city has been paying Lambing, who suffered a severe brain injury in a wreck three years ago, line-of-duty-injury leave and lifetime workers’ comp benefits.

Although city councils have extended Ramsey’s leave several times since her injury, the city staff recently determined that state law requires workers’ comp payments made by cities to be “offset” by line-of-duty-injury payments.

Ramsey’s injury leave expired last week, and Lambing’s on Monday.

Ramsey, who is paralyzed from the chest down and hasn’t worked since November because of complications from her original injury, now has three choices.

Only one — returning to work at least part time while drawing down some of her two-plus years of regular leave — would continue to compensate her at her current $112,666 annually until she gets to full retirement in five years. Her current pay and benefits include $77,293 base pay and $35,373 in lifetime workers’ comp.

Ramsey could also medically retire at more than $80,000 — with around $45,000 in retirement pay and $35,000 in lifetime workers’ comp.

If she can’t return to work, she can draw down her regular leave until it’s expended in more than two years and continue to collect her lifetime workers’ comp at the same time. At that point, Ramsey could be forced into retirement.

“It looks like I’m going to be forced to go back to 40 hours a week,” she said.

Ramsey, assigned to a unit that does background investigations on police recruits, plans to return to work as early as today and is asking Police Chief Jeff Halstead to allow her to work from home at least part of the time.

Ramsey is a single mother of a teenage daughter. Of her pay and benefits, she said in an interview: “I know it sounds like a lot of money. But my cost of living has tripled because of this injury.”

Halstead said in an interview that the city is waiting for Ramsey’s physician to clear her to return to work. But he said network security requirements would preclude police from allowing Ramsey to work from home.

If Ramsey’s physician clears her, “we’ll have to work collectively to determine what’s the assignment,” Halstead said. “I don’t think her current assignment in backgrounds is an attractive assignment to work from home.”

If she returns to work but can’t work from home, Ramsey said, she runs the risk of aggravating an open wound on her lower back that’s been trying to heal since November.

“Eventually, it’s going to end up costing them more in medical bills,” Ramsey said.

Lambing, who isn’t expected to be able to return to work because of his injury, has different choices.

Lambing, whose $117,489 in current pay and benefits includes $77,293 in injury leave and $40,196 in lifetime workers’ comp, could medically retire at $97,316.

He could also draw down his two-plus years of regular leave while continuing to receive lifetime workers’ comp, allowing him to keep collecting $117,489 during that time. At the end of two years, he could be forced to medically retire. Hall said Lambing’s best choice is to draw his regular leave and retire in two years.

Council members grappled with the issue during an afternoon work session.

“Ultimately, we’re going to have to go back and follow the law,” Mayor Betsy Price said in an interview.

Ramsey and Hall characterized the state statute as offering minimum requirements that cities can exceed by choice. But Price said, “That’s not what our counsel is advising.”

The city has paid $2.8 million for expenses related to Ramsey’s injury and $2 million in Lambing’s case.

Swearing-in

New council member Gyna Bivens was sworn in to the southeast District 5 seat Tuesday night. Bivens took the post of incumbent Frank Moss, whom she beat in a runoff in June.

Tax incentive

The City Council heard a proposed incentive that involves a property tax abatement of up to 70 percent for 10 years on a $50 million, 374-unit apartment and town house development planned for Carroll Street in the West Seventh Street corridor.

Greystar Properties would need to invest $35 million by Dec. 31, 2015; create eight full-time jobs; spend at least $10.5 million with Fort Worth contractors and at least $8.75 million in construction costs with Fort Worth women- or minority-owned businesses; and spend $233,500 annually with Fort Worth firms on services and supplies.

City estimates show that the project would generate $2.7 million in property taxes. Of that, $1.8 million would be returned to the developer to help defray infrastructure costs. The council will vote Tuesday.

Staff writer Sandra Baker contributed to this report.

Scott Nishimura, 817-390-7808 Twitter: @JScottNishimura

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