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Is the city too generous?



How would you like to make more money recuperating from a work-related injury than actually working?

That's what's happening inside our local government and city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities. The city shelled out more than $500,000 in 2007-8 to pay workers a third more than state law requires in workers' compensation pay, city auditors found. The city's figure for 2009 wasn't available.

Utilities didn't report its costs to auditors but tells the Independent the extra pay cost $36,419 last year.

In another program spotlighted in the audit, police officers and firefighters were paid $364,148 over a three-year period in worker compensation pay for injuries resulting from off-duty "fitness activity."

Both programs are under scrutiny as the city turns over every rock looking for cash to fund essential services.

"First, it's one reason we have an auditor to review this stuff and call it to our attention," Councilor Randy Purvis says when asked about the findings. "Two, I sure intend to see the policy is changed. Even though it's a small amount compared to the budget, it's large enough that it may well save a job or two. Every little bit helps."

'A disincentive'

In an audit report released last month, auditors found that the city's self-insurance workers' comp fund contained $500,000 as of December 2008, while outstanding claims stood at $3.8 million. Claims still outweigh the fund's total, but Human Resources director Ann Crossey says workers probably won't be shorted benefits, because the city's general fund must make up the difference.

At Utilities, the workers' comp fund shows losses averaging $540,000 a year since 2005. At the end of 2008, the fund contained $1.4 million with outstanding claims of $1.9 million. Both the city and Utilities responded to auditors by saying they would work to build up the funds from other sources.

Auditors suggest the city and Utilities reduce their obligations by adjusting the two programs, which offer more generous benefits than other Colorado cities.

State law requires that employees who've incurred work-related injuries or illnesses earn 66.67 percent of their pay while they're laid up; because workers' comp isn't subject to state or federal income taxes, they take home about the same amount of money as they did before. But under the city's salary continuation program, in place since at least 1985, city workers are paid 100 percent of their salaries. And they get them for a full year, as opposed to 90 days, which was the median of 19 Colorado municipalities surveyed.

"Because of this tax benefit, employees received more compensation while on leave due to injury or illness than when working at their regular employment, which could have been a disincentive to return to work," auditors wrote. "Because personnel were assigned to cover the duties of employees on Workers' Compensation leave ... the possible disincentive to return to work could also have resulted in additional overtime payments." The audit didn't report that overtime cost.

While auditors say this workers' comp benefit is more generous than elsewhere in the state, Crossey maintains that some other cities pay only two-thirds salary but then carry insurance to cover the additional one-third.

Under the fitness-related injury pay program, taxpayers pay an average of about $120,000 a year to sworn police and fire personnel. And as auditors wrote, "None of the [other] entities we contacted offered this benefit."

Crossey says the off-duty fitness program has been in place since at least 1997, when she came here. The idea is to encourage police officers and firefighters to get and stay fit, and the policy requires fitness activities take place at an approved location — such as substations, the training academy and private fitness centers.

CSPD's standards

Police Cmdr. Thor Eels says officers must meet fitness guidelines when hired. But Lou Velez, police chief from 2002 to 2006, abolished the annual fitness testing requirement because the department had no policy for consequences, Eels says.

Eels, former head of the special enforcement unit that includes SWAT, says he's partnered with the National Strength and Conditioning Association to design a program that's helped mitigate injuries among SWAT officers. Now, with current Police Chief Richard Myers' endorsement, the department wants to force all sworn officers to stay in shape, to reduce workers' comp claims and medical expenses, and to make sure officers are fit for duty.

There's also a desire to avoid lawsuits. Eels says some departments have been sued by plaintiffs alleging that out-of-shape officers have turned to excessive force. Philadelphia police are investigating a May 3 incident in which a teen was felled with a Taser gun after he dashed onto the field at a Major League Baseball game. The police officer was only about 15 feet away.

Eels says testing would take place annually and include all sworn personnel, including the chief, but such a program is fraught with pitfalls, such as the question of when an unfit officer should be fired.

So is the police force out of shape? Eels only notes that fitness hasn't been named a factor in any critical incident.

Eels says the department hopes to have new fitness requirements in place by early 2011, and Crossey says the police department's work on off-duty, fitness-related injuries has led to a review of the city's continuation-of-pay policy. A change could be presented to City Council within four months.

Interim Fire Chief Dan Raider says his department is reviewing the policy for benefits versus costs.

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