Pension Disability Commission Convenes

Discards Press Criticism

SEPTEMBER 5, 2012: There were no fireworks as the Special Commission on Disability Pensions held its initial meeting at the State House yesterday.

With periodic press criticism of disability pensions, most recently last month’s series of articles in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette focusing on the “need to look closely at the criteria for allowing public safety personnel to retire with tax-free disability pensions,” there was concern by employee unions of a possible “witch hunt” on Beacon Hill.

However, neither Senator William Brownsberger or Representative John Scibac, the co-chairmen of the twelve-member commission, nor any commission members showed any interest in criticizing our state’s disability law.

The meeting was actually something of a primer on the disability process as presented by Commissioner Joe Connarton, executive director of PERAC the state disability oversight and regulatory agency.

Connarton pointed out that there are about 197,000 retirees who are members of our state’s 105 retirement systems. Of this number, about 7.8% are disability retirees. He said their has been a decline in the number of disabilities being approved since 1996 when PERAC was created.

Commissioner Nick Favoritio, representing State Treasurer Steve Grossman, clarified the role of the State Retirement Board and presented a breakdown of disability types and numbers by the various agencies. Public safety, which includes state correction officers, county correction officers and State Police comprise more than 50% of the Commonwealth’s disability retirees.

Commissioner Ed Kelly, President of the Mass. Professional Firefighters Union, said that disability pensions limit the earnings ability of retirees and create a lifetime financial struggle for his members.

Commissioner Ralph White, pointed out that the percentage of disabilities, when compared to total retiree numbers are about the same in our large retirement systems such as the State, Boston, Worcester and Middlesex County. “No community or board should be singled out,” he said.

Commissioner John Petrin, representing the Mass. Municipal Association (MMA), did not criticize our disability law and, in fact, questioned the role and necessity of a lengthy commission study. Petrin is the Burlington Town Manager. This was enlightening to most of the commissioners and union leaders in attendance who are accustomed to MMA criticism.

Commission co-chair Scibak, who had opened the meeting by saying it was possible that the Commission could conclude its meetings by the end of this year or early next year, closed the session by saying it’s possible that the Commission could hold its next meeting in another sector of the state, giving additional opportunity for a broader attendance and public testimony.