PLATTSBURGH — The City of Plattsburgh was successful in defending a disability claim from a retired firefighter who says the job caused his cancer.
The decision, the mayor says, will save the city more than $400,000.
“I have an obligation to the taxpayers of this community to work in their best interests, and in this case, there was no way I could allow this firefighter or any firefighter to take advantage of the taxpayers for nearly $500,000,” Mayor Donald Kasprzak said.
FULL PAY SOUGHT
The case involved firefighter Richard Tucker, who sought to collect 207a benefits, which are considered the Cadillac of retirement benefits. Under 207a, recipients receive full pay without any taxes until they reach retirement age of either 62 or 70.
Tucker, 55, retired in February 2009 as he was battling prostate cancer. In his case for 207a benefits, he claimed that his cancer was caused by exposure to fires and exhaust fumes from the fire trucks in the City Fire Station.
After using all of his sick and vacation time to deal with his health issues, Tucker applied to receive more sick time from a citywide employee pool for leave but was denied.
He then retired and sought the 207a benefits.
During lengthy testimony over the past three years, the firefighter’s union had argued that Tucker could very well have become sick because of exposure to fires and the accompanying soot. They also claimed the exhaust from the truck engines could have been a contributing factor.
The city argued that in addition to being a firefighter, Tucker also worked delivering home-heating oil and cleaning and servicing furnaces, which could have caused the cancer.
He also worked at a car wash and was a volunteer firefighter, the city pointed out.
In a decision handed down last month, an arbitrator for the State Public Employees Relations Board ruled in favor of the city.
Tucker said he is considering appealing the decision.
“Right now, I am checking into whether or not we will appeal this,” he told the Press-Republican. “It is what it is. I know it cost both sides a lot of money.”
Kasprzak said the city spent about $40,000 on legal fees for the case.
“But when you save more than $400,000, it is worth it,” he said.
City Chamberlain Richard Marks said that if the city had lost the case, it could have cost about $487,000 in benefits.
He said the city would have had to pay Tucker about $62,000 for the sick and vacation time he used and around $225,000 for half of his pay for about nine years, from the time he stopped working to retirement age of 62. The state would have paid the other half.
The city also might have had to pay Tucker about $200,000 in retirement pay from the regular retirement system from age 62 to age 70, if he were accepted into that system as well.
Payments to Tucker beyond the age of 70 would have come from the state.
Tucker said he is not sure he agrees with the city’s figures. He said that if he had won, he would have received only about $5,000 or $6,000 more per year beyond his regular retirement pay until he reached actual retirement age.
“I don’t know where they (city) got their figures from,” he said.
Firefighters Union President Terry Feazelle said the union will meet in September to discuss the case further. He found it interesting that the city is happy to talk about winning the case.
“We’ve won 39 cases and lost one, and yet this is the one they want to talk about,” Feazelle said.
The mayor said the firefighters union should not be bragging about anything, noting that they have had three presidents in three years, have fired their attorney and lost the Horicon Museum after it was discovered that the building was being used as a drinking and gambling establishment.
He said that in a majority of the 39 cases the union claims to have won, he signed off on them to save on legal costs.
“This case (Tucker case), however, is a significant win for the city and sends a message (that) I will not allow this union to control things any longer.”
The mayor said he tried to work out a deal with Tucker and the union, but they were not interested.
“We are all fortunate that the decision in this case was the correct one, and as long as I am mayor, I will not allow these types of employees to take advantage of the people I represent.”
Tucker said he feels fine now and is awaiting final word next spring that will pretty much declare him cancer free.
“I am looking forward to that. This is something that just came out of the blue, and it’s not something I needed in my life.”
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