Thursday night, New Castle officials rejected the request of a police officer’s ex-spouse to collect survivor benefits.
It has been an issue 18 years in the making.
The city’s Police Pension Board was told Bonnie Williams wanted to access retired Lt. Ronald S. Williams’ benefits following his death on March 16. Married on Nov 9, 1968, the pair divorced in 2001. He served with the department for 28 1/2 years.
Attorney Randy Rhoades, the pension board’s counsel, said that a payment to Bonnie Williams from the city’s police pension plan was included in the divorce agreement. Rhoades said former city business manager John DiMuccio gave his OK.
“They circulated a draft DRO — domestic relations order — dealing with the pension,” he said. “And John DiMuccio took a look at it and he said, ‘Well, it looks OK to me.’
“He signed off on it. They went ahead with their divorce.”
Prior to the officer’s death, she received $900 a month.
“She has a claim under the DRO for between ($2,000) and $3,000 for the rest of her life,” Rhoades said. “And under Pennsylvania law, we can’t pay on this. John wasn’t in a position to override an ordinance. The ordinance is very clear — a survivor benefit can only be paid for a surviving spouse.”
Rhoades said he realized there was a problem in 2007.
“We sent a letter to the parties indicating that the plan is not in a position to pay that (pension) under state law. Her attorney responded that he didn’t think that you can unilaterally pull it back — that it already had been approved by the city.
“No further action was taken for years.”
Bonnie Williams presented Rhoades with case law indicating a survivor benefit can be payable in a divorce situation.
“Our plan says you cannot pay the survivor benefit,” Rhoades said.
He added that the state auditor general could step in and find New Castle at fault if it pays Bonnie Williams under the pension plan.
“I think the auditor general would say ‘Look, clearly, under cases you can’t pay this.’ And as a result, if the city is going to continue to pay — and they cannot pay out of the pension plan — so that ($2,000) to $3,000 a month for the rest of her life would have to come out of the general fund.”
The board voted against Bonnie Williams’ request 1-6. She may appeal the decision. Further appeals would go to Lawrence County common pleas court.
Mayor Anthony Mastrangelo asked who would pay — the police pension or the general fund — if Williams wins her case.
“The pension would start paying under the pension plan,” Rhoades said. “And we would kind of just have to wait and see what would happen in the audit.
“I think, usually, the Auditor General’s Office backs away when it sees a court order, recognizing that the local government had done everything possible to contest this and throw it out of their hands at that point. So I think you put yourself in the best position possible.”