Officer fights salary battle

Detective must serve in Baghdad

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— A Steamboat Springs police officer who is about to be sent to Iraq with the Army National Guard said the city refuses to pay him salary and benefits he is owed for military leave.

Detective Dave Kleiber said he has battled the city over how much he is owed for his military service for each of the past three years. He recently learned that he will be assigned to serve in Iraq for a year and he fears he will lose even more in salary and benefits.

The city said it has followed state law regarding paying National Guard and military reserve personnel in Kleiber's case and has treated him fairly.

Kleiber argues state law requires the city to pay his regular salary for the first 15 days he is away from his city job. The city's position is that Kleiber should only be paid if he earns less during his military service than he does in his job as a detective. Kleiber, a major in the Army National Guard, typically earns more during his military service.

On Sept. 15, Kleiber is being deployed to Baghdad as part of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

In addition to his salary, Kleiber is concerned the city will not fund his pension during his active duty.

The city and Kleiber disagree over the wording in the state statute. The statute stipulates that any public employee with the National Guard or reserves, "under law is entitled to leave of absence from his public office or employment without loss of pay, seniority, status, efficiency rating, vacation, sick leave or other benefits," for 15 days a year.

The city's policy maintains any full time permanent employee should be granted leave for up to 15 working days per year for participation in required military activities. The policy further states employees will receive full compensation, will retain their position and will sign their military checks over to the city.

Because Kleiber makes more in the National Guard than he does working as a police officer, the city allowed him to keep his National Guard pay. But the city refused to pay him his detective's salary during the 15 days he spent on military service each of the past three years, Kleiber said.

"We are really not talking about a hell of a lot of money," Kleiber said. "We are really talking about principles."

Kleiber said he does not have the funds or the time to take the city to court. But as a senior officer, Kleiber said, it is his duty to make sure junior soldiers receive the benefits they are entitled to.

John Thrasher, the city's human resources director, said the city has complied with state law and worked hard to accommodate Kleiber's situation.

"Everything done is according to law," Thrasher said. "That it is why this is so infuriating. The city has been trying very hard to do what is the right thing from day one."

After consulting with the Mountain State Employers Council, the Colorado Municipal League and the Attorney General's office, the city said it found its policy complies with federal and state laws and is a widely accepted practice with other municipalities throughout the state.

In an e-mail sent to Thrasher from Lorrie Ray of the Mountain State Employers Council, Ray said some could view giving a public employee military pay and pay from the employer as a public policy violation.

"Taxpayers would be double paying an employee whose earnings come from taxes," Ray said. "While this may or may not be a stretch of current case, there is nothing I know of requiring what could arguably amount to a windfall to the employee."

Steamboat is not the only municipality with this policy in place.

A survey Thrasher did showed that Breckenridge, Glenwood Springs, Northglenn, Golden, Grand Junction, Vail and Lafayette follow a similar policy.

Wheat Ridge was the only city surveyed that gave its National Guardsmen and Army Reservists full pay for 15 days of military leave, Thrasher said.

Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said the county gives its employees full salary on top of any military compensation for the first 15 days of military leave. She said the policy cites state and federal law as the reason for doing so.

"It is appropriate to support that law. It is not only a state statute, it is important for people to be involved in the Reserves, to get off when there is annual training and to be available for active duty," Stahoviak said.

Thrasher said a 1980s State Supreme Court Case where a Colorado Springs teacher challenged the school district for making him sign over his National Guard check supports the city's stance.

In that case, Thrasher said, the court backed the district's policy of having employees' sign over their military paychecks while collecting their regular pay from the district.

James Zarlengo, representing the Colorado Army National Guard Judge Advocate General's office, wrote in a memo to Kleiber that the case does not pertain to Kleiber because the teacher's pay had been negotiated by the teachers union. Kleiber is not represented by a union.

Zarlengo said the city is in clear violation of the law.

Thrasher said the city would only contribute to Kleiber's pension fund based on what he earns, meaning Kleiber would not receive pension contributions while serving in Iraq.

But if Kleiber return to the city after his service, he would have three years to add to his pension fund, making up for the missed year.

At that time, the city would make its contribution accordingly.

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