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Retired firefighter defends right to benefits

In this March 22 photo, Paul Dean, fire chief in Hoquiam stands in the garage where the city's new ladder truck will be parked when it arrives from the manufacturer. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

A former firefighter is speaking out for the retired firefighters receiving benefits described as “lavish” in a recent Associated Press report.

The report detailed the struggle of several Washington towns to cover pension systems cost, in some cases, as much as the running of the present-day fire department.

Associated Press reporter Mike Baker used the city of Hoquiam as an example.

“The city money going to the medical coverage of former firefighters and police officers in just the so-called LEOFF-1 pension system totaled $1.2 million over the past couple of years, according to budget documents. By comparison, the entire active Fire Department budget of salaries, medical, supplies and equipment totaled about $1.8 million during the same period,” writes Baker.

Baker explains the Law Enforcement Officers’ and Fire Fighters’ Retirement System Plan 1 (LEOFF-1) was created in 1969 and the state covers retirement for pensioners, but local governments cover medical bills.

The report cited cases of hot tubs, penile implants, and hypnotic treatments under expenses that were covered by the plan.

But a retired Hoquiam firefighter appearing on KIRO Radio’s Ross and Burbank Show says Baker’s story is one-sided.

“As I read through the article, it looked obvious that it was pointed in one direction and I feel this reporter didn’t do it justice by doing his research,” said the former firefighter who asked to remain anonymous.

He says this benefits plan was put in place years ago and the city entered into an agreement with these firefighters.

“They [the firefighters] played by the rules. They did what was asked of them and there was an agreement in place,” he says.

“Forty years ago, this law was not hidden from anybody. It was in plain sight, not from any obscure board….Why are these individuals being blamed for incompetent administrators and people who continued to kick a can down the road, when it was there in plain sight.”

To characterize the situation these cities are facing, Baker highlights Hoqiuam’s struggle to pay for a new fire truck. Voters had to pass a levy to buy a new truck, a cost that could have been covered in two years if not for the pensions, Baker says.

But the former firefighter, who says he was actually in the department when that old truck was brought into service 30 years ago, says it’s not as if the benefits plan or the costs of a replacement fire truck one day were something no one knew about.

“We have to plan to replace equipment and Hoquiam had no plan in place to replace that equipment.”

As for the hot tub medical expenses, the retired firefighter says he would have liked to see some information provided in the article about why these benefits might have been awarded.

“What was the reason behind that? There may have been a particular reason for that board to make that decision,” he said. “We don’t know what went behind to make that decision.”

From his perspective, he’s using the benefits as they were awarded to him and he doesn’t feel he’s misusing them, nor does he feel his fellow retired firefighters would be misusing theirs.

“I’m using the insurance in the correct form that is given to me, I assume as well as others. We’re not abusing the system. We’re using it correctly following the rules that the board and the city have for us to use those benefits.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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