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McALLEN — Facing chronic pancreatitis and the prospect of major surgery, Harold Taylor retired from the police department here during May 2009. Before he left, a city employee assured Taylor the four years he spent with the U.S. Marine Corps would count toward his retirement, triggering full health care benefits.
And for 18 months, everything went according to plan. McAllen paid half Taylor’s monthly health care premium, which covers his wife and children. The policy also covers 11 prescription medications and insulin, which he injects every morning to manage the pancreatitis.
This fall, city auditors discovered those payments to Taylor and several other retirees, and ordered them stopped.
Counting Taylor’s military service was a mistake, according to the audit. His remaining 22 years and two months with the department don’t qualify Taylor for premium assistance.
So the city’s benefits coordinator mailed Taylor one-page letter, explaining his $303.80 monthly premium would double to $607.60 next year. It’s dated Nov. 11, 2010 — Veterans Day.
“If I had known this, I would never have retired,” Taylor said. “I would have stuck it through.”
The mild-mannered, 53-year-old former airport cop said he receives a monthly $1,100 retirement check. Taylor’s new monthly bill would immediately eat more than half.
Taylor’s predicament stems from McAllen’s police contract, which requires an officer to serve 25 years before earning half-off premiums.
While military service counts towards other retirement qualifications, only years worked for the police department count toward the premium payments. Taylor’s stint with the Marines, from 1978 to 1982, took place five years before he worked for the department, and doesn’t count, according to McAllen’s interpretation of the contract.
Even an officer who served in the National Guard during his time with the department wouldn’t be able to count years spent away from the department toward the premium payments, said City Manager Mike Perez. If, for example, the officer spent four years deployed in Afghanistan, he would need to work an additional four years with the department to make up that time and earn the premium payments.
McAllen must follow the contract, Perez said. “As badly as I feel, it is what it is.”
Protecting the premium payments for retirees has been a source of contention during police contract negotiations, which are ongoing.
The city’s chief negotiator has pushed to phase out or eliminate the payments, which currently cover 19 retirees, according to figures from the McAllen Police Officers Union. No other retired city employees split their health care premiums with McAllen.
“Their whole objective is to phase out that benefit,” said Joe Garcia, the union president. “That’s one of the reasons we’re at a standstill. They’re not budging, we’re not budging.”
Come Jan. 1, when McAllen intends to stop paying half Taylor’s premium, the union will take “appropriate action,” Garcia said. “We’re not going to ignore it, that’s for sure.”
Editor’s Note: Political subdivisions in Texas are struggling with past committments towards their retirees. With GASB 45, the move to eliminate retiree benefits is a tough political pill to swallow. It is all about money.