WASHINGTON – Patrick Beam gave 13 months to his country. Now the National Guardsman is relieved that he won’t have to give Montgomery County $32,000 as well.
County officials on Wednesday dropped a two-month-old demand that Beam, a county correctional officer, give back the money it accidentally overpaid him while he was on active duty from 2003 to 2004.
Overpayments to two other guardsmen will also be forgiven, said county spokeswoman Donna Bigler.
“We will not be asking these individuals to pay back the overpayment,” she said, calling the decision “definitive” and “fair to all.” She attributed the problem to confusion arising from sudden deployments and said the county is making changes to ensure it does not happen again.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, Montgomery County has seen 45 of its 8,400 employees called to active duty by the National Guard or Army Reserve.
Beam got his orders in early April 2003. The Hagerstown resident, who has been in the National Guard for more than eight years, serves with the 729th Forward Support Battalion, which spent 13 months providing base security at Fort Meade and Fort Detrick.
Montgomery County is only supposed to pay employees on active duty the difference between their civilian and military pay. But Beam received his regular paychecks in addition to his military salary throughout his call-up.
Worried that he was being overpaid, Beam said he called the county’s human resources office seven times and was told repeatedly there was no mistake. The county wanted to “support the troops.”
“My wife and I took it as a blessing,” Beam said about the extra money.
“I put a new roof on my house,” he said. “My son has Down syndrome . . . We had the opportunity to get him some of the (physical therapy) equipment we couldn’t ordinarily afford.”
The first letter from the county came in August, saying in effect, it had made a mistake and Beam might be required to repay the money. He said appeals to his union, the Montgomery County Employees Organization, produced no action and he began worrying about bankruptcy and how he would make his house payments.
“I got this twitch in my lip,” Beam said. “I feel so bad for my family and how we got treated. Montgomery County is the third-richest county in the U.S. . . . and it can’t manage its financial department.”
He called Boyd Cook, the Maryland chairman of Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve, a Defense Department program that helps soldiers like Beam with compensation and other employer problems.
Cook, himself a retired major general in the Guard, said the confusion in Montgomery County, while a bit dramatic, was not untypical. The county needs to “improve communication between the human resource department that makes policy and the payroll,” he said.
Cook had just found a lawyer to represent Beam for free when the county decided to forgive the $32,000 overpayment.
Bigler agrees that the county was not prepared for employee deployments following 9/11, and communication may have broken down.
“As people have been called up and come back, we understand the nuances,” she said. The county now has people on staff who are well versed in compensation policy for employees on active duty, she said, and can ensure smoother transitions.
Beam, who works at the county jail in Clarksburg, is just relieved it’s all over. He and his wife exchanged high-fives when they got the news.
“I’m speechless,” said Beam. The couple are expecting their third child in February.
“My wife and I were just at the store and we bought three pounds of ground turkey and four boxes of Hamburger Helper,” he said. “I thought, this is the way it’s going to be, getting to the next payday. I’m really excited.”
-30- CNS 10-06-04