How can a City get away with stealing roughly $50,000 from two former police officers?
Naples Police officers Brad Gallagher and Ryan Harp have been asking that for nearly a year. Both men recently left the department, granted disability retirement because of catastrophic injuries sustained in the line of duty.
"I've done nothing but serve my community this entire time and then I get treated like this by the city of Naples, it just blows me away," Gallagher told the Naples Daily News.
The former officers are U.S. Army Veterans who bought back their military service credits by paying the City of Naples over half of their yearly salaries in a lump sum.
The 'Military Buyback Program' is a benefit for all veterans with active duty military service time to receive credit for their military service time to be added to their years of civil service with the government and increases their retirement annuity.
When the two retired within the last year, department officials told them they would receive the bare minimum benefit equal to 42% of their final average compensation.
But there is a problem. The military years they bought back were not enough to raise their benefit over 42%, a minimum both officers say is already hard to survive off. Since they did not benefit from their buyback,they asked to be refunded, but the city said no.
"They don't want to give me any of it. It was crazy because it was my money that I bought for my military time," Gallagher said. "They have no reason, they just arbitrarily made this decision that they don't want to give it to me."
After leaving the U.S. Army in 2000 and a 10-year stint as a deputy in Polk County, Gallagher joined the Naples department in 2011 before a catastrophic knee injury ended his police career last year.
While preparing to calculate their pension benefits, they each paid a $500 assessment fee, Harp in 2017 and Gallagher in 2019 to have the city's actuary tell them how much they would have to pay to purchase their military service credits.
For Harp, the buyback was around $27,000 for four years of his military service, and Gallagher purchased roughly four years of credit, totaling $28,929 that the actuary told him had to be paid in a lump sum.
Harp told the Naples Daily News that he paid $20,000 upfront from his savings in June 2017, and then $1,230 every month for six months out of a paycheck. His salary was $54,000. In 2019 Gallagher's pay was $57,703 due to working overtime, but in 2020 his pay dropped to a base salary of $55,252.
Harp served as a military police officer from 2006 to 2010 with Fort Leonard-Wood, Missouri, Charlie Company 795; Fort Sill Oklahoma 40th MP Detachment; and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 500th MP Company. He was honorably discharged at the rank of Sergeant E-5.
"If they cared for veterans why would you withhold money for a service that was bought and was not used? There is nothing in the policy that states they can not give our money back," Harp said. "We are not speaking of a couple of hundred dollars here, even though during this time every penny counts. This is thousands we as veterans paid out of our own family’s pockets. Understand we are not asking for anything that wasn’t ours or that we didn’t earn."
The discussion on military buyback refunds for Gallagher and Harp has come up during all four pension board meetings this year. Each time the board decided to push the discussion to the next meeting.
For Gallagher, the issue boils down to the city's unwillingness to draft an appropriate policy statement for what they say is a rare occurrence: a vested police officer granted disability retirement for an on-the-job injury, who also happens to have bought back military service credits.
From the perspective of the City and the pension board, the issue comes down to what the city ordinance says, or rather, what it does not say. Specifically, Sec. 29-316 (j) which states:
Any police officer who shall retire from the service of the city under this section as a result of a line-of-duty disability shall receive a minimum benefit equal to 42 percent of final average compensation and, if as a result of a non-line-of-duty disability, a minimum benefit equal to 25 percent of final average compensation.
Gallagher shared emails with the Naples Daily News between him and Elizabeth Willis, senior accountant for the city's finance department, showing that he had brought up how the Florida Retirement System policy includes a minimum benefit equal to 65% of final average compensation.
"Regardless, procedures of the FRS cannot be applied to our membership. We are required to follow our ordinances and plan assumptions. " Willis wrote in an email to Gallaghar on Sept. 21.
"The board did have their (sic.) regularly scheduled board meeting on September 3, 2021. As promised, I made sure that the board would discuss the buyback at that meeting and inquire with the board professionals as to whether or not we could do anything with the buyback," Willis wrote in her email. "Unfortunately both the actuary and the legal professionals agreed that we have no provision to return buyback contributions."
Refunding military buybacks
The Naples Daily News contacted Joel Huffman, FRS Benefit Administrator with the Bureau of Retirement Calculations to ask about refunding military buybacks.
"Members do have the opportunity to request a refund of that service," Huffman said. "There is not really a scenario I can think of where we should say no to the refund. Because they had paid for it and we are going to remove the service credit associated with that purchase ...
"Basically if they had said in their disability retirement application that they did not think it would be worth to keep it in the long run, and asked 'can I just request a refund,' then we would say 'absolutely, go ahead'."
Huffman added, “I don't know of a policy that is formally written out, I also don't know any Florida administrative code that says we can't or can. It's just something we do."
Joe Whitehead disagrees that a lack of ordinance language should mean the officer's military buybacks cannot be refunded. He is a former Naples police detective and was the chairman of the police officers' retirement trust fund board of trustees for 20 years. He resigned from the board after its June meeting.
He explained the typical scenario of an officer buying back their military years.
"Let's say you did five years in the Army and then became a police officer for the next 20 years. And then you buy the five back and it would bring you to the equivalent of 25 years of service, so when you retire you get the benefit of what you spent because five years of additional service would calculate into your pension."
Whitehead said that in his two decades on the board he had only come across a few situations that dealt with military buybacks but never had he come across Harp and Gallagher's circumstances.
When he discussed the issue at the June meeting, he said no one had a clear vision or answer.
"The question becomes since they put that in and it was intended to calculate their pension to a higher pension benefit level, what do we do? Because this is the first time it has come up," he told the Naples Daily News.
"My thoughts were, if they paid for something that they did not get the benefit of, then it should probably be refunded," Whitehead said. "The reason I think this is important is because you put your own money into this so something should be coming back to you for your investment."
Because Harp and Gallagher retired due to disability, the benefits they are owed are calculated differently.
"The board cannot take any action, if they do they're subject to being sued, but the city council should take it up."
Hurt on the job
In April 2015, Harp was making a traffic stop on Goodlette-Frank Road when he was struck by his patrol car after a drunken driver hit another car.
His patrol car struck his right arm while he was standing next to the driver’s door of a vehicle he had pulled over, Florida Highway Patrol reports show.
Initial reports indicate Harp went to Naples Community Hospital with minor injuries. But Harp says the incident "was my major injury that started everything."
It had been the third car crash he had been involved in during his career with the Naples PD. After he returned from light duty, he was hit again within 10 days.
It was Harp's decision to retire due to his injury in October 2020.
"But I was not given proper care by my first doctors under workers comp," Harp told the Naples Daily News. "They didn’t believe my back was injured badly and it finally ruptured and I waited for a while for an MRI, which finally showed the extent of my injuries."
Gallagher was handed a termination letter on Jan. 21, 2021, effective three days later.
"Our records indicate that you have been unable to work full duty without restrictions since June 24, 2019, due to an injury sustained in the line of duty," the letter said. "Unfortunately, the Police Department can no longer accommodate the light-duty work restrictions assigned by your physician. Therefore, I regret to inform you that it is the City's intent to separate you from employment with the City for medical reasons."
Gallagher says the letter was a low blow.
"They almost treat you as a criminal," he said. "The time they gave me my notice of termination, I walked back to my office from the lieutenant's office, I went to the bathroom, I came back and I couldn't even get into the office area because they had already shut off my key fob."
"It was a complete shock, I had no benefits after that month was over so my kids went without any kind of health insurance for three months," he said.
During the December police pension board meeting Gallagher and Harp spoke during public comment.
Harp told the board he was concerned that the panel had done nothing about the issue.
"Pretty much we are just trying to figure out what is going on," Harp said to the board.
"We have the issue of $27,000 that we paid, 50% of our salary paid in a short time frame" he said. "We were hacking out our money during that time where you're not going on vacations, you're not eating steak dinners because you're trying to pay off something that is going to benefit you later down the road."
"Now we have paid for a service that is not being provided to us, so I feel like my money is being stolen from me ...
"This issue was really brought up in June, but now we're sitting here in December without our money, coming up on Christmas and we're here twiddling our thumbs wondering what the board is going to do."
Gallagher had the same complaints about the delay.
"We're just kicking the can down the road, every department seems to just be kicking it off to the next meeting or kicking off to someone else's blame."
The board discussed a concern that not resolving the buyback question quickly may make recruitment even harder for the department that already has an officer shortage.
“As we're recruiting people from out of state we have to keep open the idea that this may become an issue and we may very well become a model for other plans," said board member Michael Herman. The meeting ended after a motion was passed for their attorney to draft an amendment to the ordinance to be given to the city council to speed up their decision-making process.
Gallagher and Harp left the pension board meeting with mixed feelings.
"No one chooses to be disabled from a career they have been doing for over 20 years," Gallagher said. "I'm fighting for all veterans and disabled officers to have the retirement board return their own money that is owed to them by the city.
Gallagher and Harp are now urging the Naples community to email Mayor Teresa Heitmann and council members to voice their support.
“The city fights us on everything so this will be an ongoing fight, but my thing is to make sure a change happens so that this never happened to another veteran or first responder ever again” Harp added.
On Monday, Dec. 13, the Naples City Council met during a closed meeting to discuss the military buyback and refund issue. While it is not known what was discussed during the meeting, Naples City Councilman Ted Blankenship said the council has asked the city manager to investigate.
This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: How can Naples get away with stealing from 2 former police officers?