THE WATCHDOGS: Surf’s up for former Chicago Ridge police chief on disability

SHARE THE WATCHDOGS: Surf’s up for former Chicago Ridge police chief on disability
SHARE THE WATCHDOGS: Surf’s up for former Chicago Ridge police chief on disability

Last summer, former Chicago Ridge police chief Tim Baldermann sued the southwest suburb, claiming village officials wrongly slashed the amount of tax-free disability pay he gets for the on-the-job back injury that ended his police career.

This winter, despite the bad back that Baldermann says merits a six-figure disability pension, he grabbed a boogie board and rode stomach-side down on the waves off a beach in Queensland, Australia. A pair of photos that a friend posted on Facebook captured the moment.

Baldermann, 48, who also is mayor of New Lenox and superintendent of a small suburban school district, says riding the small, surf-like board put no stress on his bad back.

And he says his wave-riding shouldn’t have any bearing on the controversy over his fight to restore the disability pay that the Chicago Ridge police pension board cut last July by 45 percent, from $129,192 a year to $71,091.

“There’s a big difference between riding in three feet of water and being a police officer,” says Baldermann, who hurt his back while loading a dead body into a police van in 2008 and went on disability two years later, when he was 43. “My restrictions for my disability were not to lift certain weights.

“This was nothing other than good exercise for me, which is recommended by my doctor,” he says. “You can also watch me on a treadmill four mornings a week.”

Baldermann is seeking re-election to his part-time job as New Lenox mayor. He works full time as superintendent of Union School District 81, a one-school elementary district in Joliet.

<small><strong>Tim Baldermann | Sun-Times files</strong></small>

Tim Baldermann | Sun-Times files

The Chicago Sun-Times’ 2012 “Disability Pays” investigation found that Baldermann’s disability pay was more than what anyone else was collecting in the investigation of police officers and firefighters who were receiving disability checks while working other jobs. At the time, he was taking home a total of about $274,000 a year — from his disability checks, full-time job and part-time job.

While still chief in Chicago Ridge, Baldermann underwent surgery in late 2009 for a herniated disc and had a cadaver bone and titanium bracket placed in his back. He could no longer lift heavy objects, and village officials told him his days as a cop were over.

“I tried to stay on as the chief,” Baldermann says. “They told me, ‘No, I couldn’t.’ ”

Under terms of a 2005 agreement, the police pension board based his disability pay on a final salary of $198,756, including a 20 percent bonus and $56,260 in vacation pay counted as salary because Baldermann agreed to give up his village health insurance.

If that deal stood up, Baldermann would have collected more than $5 million in disability pay by the time he turns 75 — more than 36 times the $137,933 he paid into the pension fund during 22 years with the suburb’s police department.

But two weeks after Baldermann got his first disability check, police pension board members questioned his benefits, eventually determining that his vacation time and bonus shouldn’t be counted as salary under state law.

Baldermann and another Chicago Ridge cop, Dennis Kapelinski — who isn’t disabled but saw his pension boosted by similar incentives — sued the board, saying it had no right to reconsider their benefits. A Cook County judge ruled against them, and last month the Illinois Appellate Court upheld that decision.

Now, Baldermann and Kapelinski again are fighting in court, this time to restore their original deals. They argue that the village breached the terms of their 2005 agreements. They’re also fighting the board’s decision to make them pay back the extra money they got — $242,062 in Baldermann’s case.

If Judge Rita Novak rules that Baldermann isn’t entitled to his original six-figure disability pay, he wants her to order Chicago Ridge to pay him for his unused vacation time and to provide his family with the health insurance he agreed to give up, according to the lawsuit.

In an interview done with Baldermann’s approval, his spinal physician, Dr. Cary R. Templin, said that his patient “has had a spinal fusion,” “has done fairly well” and that “something such as body-boarding is not included in his restrictions.”

“He certainly can work in an administrative role,” Templin says. “But as a police officer, if the necessity arises that he needs to apprehend suspects, sometimes big people, he could be a liability to himself or the public.”

Other than restrictions on lifting and performing police duties, Templin says Baldermann is free to engage in physical activity.

“He is certainly within his realm to subject himself to those risks if he wishes,” Templin says.

The pension board has yet to seek an outside opinion on Baldermann’s disability, even though Illinois law requires yearly medical exams for all disabled police officers outside the city of Chicago until age 50 to see if they’re fit to return to work.

Attorneys for the pension fund and the village have said they believe the suit Baldermann and Kapelinski filed in 2010 prevented them from ordering Baldermann to be examined. Now that the appellate court has ruled, the pension board will comply with the law.

“It’s high time he submits to a physical,” says Nick Cetwinski, a lawyer representing Chicago Ridge.

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