ST. LOUIS — Missouri owes more than $30 million to 3,300 blind residents to make up for years of shortchanging payments to them through the Blind Pension Fund, a judge has ruled.
Cole County Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce determined the Missouri Department of Social Services miscalculated benefits dating from 1992. She awarded nearly $19 million in unpaid benefits and more than $11 million in interest.
It wasn't clear Friday whether the state would appeal Thursday's decision. A Social Services spokesman referred questions to the Missouri Attorney General's office. A spokesperson for the attorney general did not return messages seeking comment.
Pensioners were underpaid for more than a decade, said attorney Deborah Greider, who filed the class-action lawsuit on behalf of the St. Louis-based Missouri Council of the Blind and seven blind Missourians. After the lawsuit was filed about five years ago, Missouri recalculated the pension and now pays a fair amount, she said.
The average blind pensioner now receives about $651 a month from the state, and for many, that is their only income.
"Most of these people are poor and unemployed, many are elderly," Greider said. She recalled testimony from one blind woman who was asked what an additional $40 a month would mean to her.
"She said, 'I could feed my guide dog better, I could get a pizza once in a while,'" Greider said. "It was really heartbreaking."
Denny Huff, president of the Missouri Council of the Blind, said the state shorted people who were already on tight budgets.
"To be denied even a percentage of what they should have been receiving may not seem like much to some people," he said, "but for a lot of recipients, it affected them a great deal."
The Missouri Constitution has required the General Assembly since 1875 to levy an annual property tax to fund the Blind Pension Fund. But starting in 1992, the state began using some of the money for other expenses, Greider said.
For example, some of the money goes to rehabilitation services for blind Missourians. But Greider said the pensions should be fully funded first, with leftover money going to rehab services.
The Missouri Court of Appeals agreed in a January 2009 ruling and sent the case to Cole County to determine the amount of back benefits owed to pensioners.