- The Washington Times - Monday, December 14, 2009

A D.C. deputy fire chief remains an employee of the District despite working as a county fire chief in Florida as part of an arrangement that will allow him to receive retirement benefits for five years that he otherwise would not be entitled to collect.

Deputy Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe took a job as the chief of the Sarasota County, Fla., fire department in late July, according to reports from Florida news outlets, and he is listed as the chief on the county’s government Web site.

Officials from the D.C. fire department and the Department of Human Resources confirm that - at least on paper - Chief Ellerbe is still a member of the D.C. fire department.

Fire department spokesman Pete Piringer said Chief Ellerbe’s status of “on leave without pay” was arranged so he could meet requirements to start collecting on his pension immediately upon retirement.

“He had the years [of service] but not the age,” Mr. Piringer said. “They’re waiting for him to get to 50.”

Chief Ellerbe, a 27-year veteran of the fire department, briefly served as interim fire chief in 2000. He last served as the department’s director of community outreach.

The arrangement will allow Chief Ellerbe, whose salary was $149,892 this year and last year, to start collecting 80 percent of his salary when he turns 50 in April, instead of deferring his retirement benefits until he turns 55. That amounts to about $600,000 in retirement benefits over the five years.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, said the arrangement threatens to further strain morale at the department.

“It doesn’t sound right to me,” said Mr. Mendelson, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary. “It sends the wrong message to the others in the rank and file.”

Mr. Piringer said that he was not familiar with the details of the arrangement and that the fire department deferred to the city’s Department of Human Resources. He said Brender Gregory, director of human resources, signed off on Chief Ellerbe’s status.

Human Resources Department officials confirmed that Chief Ellerbe has been on leave without pay but would not say when that status began. Human resources legislative analyst Andrew Gerst directed The Washington Times to file a Freedom of Information Act request for further information about Chief Ellerbe’s status, including who approved of the arrangement.

Human resources officials, citing employee privacy laws, denied the request for documents related to Chief Ellerbe’s status. They also denied a request for the dates of Chief Ellerbe’s last four paychecks.

According to the D.C. Police Officers’ and Firefighters’ Retirement Plan, posted on the D.C. Retirement Board’s Web site, dcrb.dc.gov, the fire department has a three-tier retirement system that depends on when employment began. Chief Ellerbe, who began his tenure with the fire department in April 1982, falls under the second tier, which requires members to be at least age 50 and have at least 25 years of service to begin collecting retirement benefits immediately upon leaving the department.

Chief Ellerbe on Friday responded to calls and e-mails from The Times with a text message saying he had no comment.

D.C. firefighters union President Ray Sneed said Thursday that the union was not involved in the arrangement and had not seen any documents related to it but that he was confident it had been executed legally.

Mr. Sneed said the reason the retirement system added a third tier was to address a gap between age and experience. Firefighters hired after November 1996 may retire at any age as long as they have at least 25 years of experience, Mr. Sneed said.

He said he was not aware of similar arrangements for any other firefighters.

“I’m sure the request started with the agency before it went up through the government,” Mr. Sneed said. “I’m sure the whole process was properly vetted.”

• David C. Lipscomb can be reached at .

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