Padded Pensions Add to New York Fiscal Woes
In Yonkers, more than 100 retired police officers and firefighters are collecting pensions greater than their pay when they were working. One of the youngest, Hugo Tassone, retired at 44 with a base pay of about $74,000 a year. His pension is now $101,333 a year.
It’s what the system promised, said Mr. Tassone, now 47, adding that he did nothing wrong by adding lots of overtime to his base pay shortly before retiring. “I don’t understand how the working guy that held up their end of the bargain became the problem,” he said.
Despite a pension investigation by the New York attorney general, an audit concluding that some police officers in the city broke overtime rules to increase their payouts and the mayor’s statements that future pensions should be based on regular pay, not overtime, these practices persist in Yonkers.
The city has even arranged for its police to put in overtime as flagmen on Consolidated Edison construction sites. Though a company is paying the bill, the city is actually reporting the work as city overtime to the New York State pension fund, padding future payouts — an arrangement at odds with the spirit of public employment, if not the law.
The Yonkers experience shows how errors, misunderstandings and wishful thinking are piling hidden new costs onto New York’s public pension system every year, worsening the state’s current fiscal crisis. And the problem is not just in New York. Public pension costs are ballooning everywhere, throwing budgets out of whack and raising the question of whether venerable state pension systems are viable.
In fact, the cost of public pensions has been systemically underestimated nationwide for more than two decades, say some analysts. By these estimates, state and local officials have promised $5 trillion worth of benefits while thinking they were committing taxpayers to roughly half that amount.
The use of public money for outsize retirement pay really stings when budgets don’t balance, teachers are being laid off, furloughs are being planned and everything from poison-control centers to Alzheimer’s day care is being cut, as is happening in New York.
According to pension data collected by The New York Times from the city and state, about 3,700 retired public workers in New York are now getting pensions of more than $100,000 a year, exempt from state and local taxes. The data belie official reports that the average state pension is a modest $18,000, or $38,000 for retired police officers and firefighters. (The average is low, in part, because it includes people who worked in government only part time, or just a few years, as well as surviving spouses getting partial benefits.)
Roughly one of every 250 retired public workers in New York is collecting a six-figure pension, and that group is expected to grow rapidly in coming years, based on the number of highly paid people in the pipeline.
Payouts for Decades
Some will receive the big pensions for decades. Thirteen New York City police officers recently retired at age 40 with pensions above $100,000 a year; nine did so in their 30s. The plan’s public information officer said that the very young retirees had qualified for special disability pensions, which are 50 percent larger than ordinary police pensions. He said several dozen of the highest-paid New York City police retirees had disabilities related to 9/11 and the rest of the disabilities resulted from injuries in the line of duty.
In virtually every case, the officials who granted the rich pensions thought they were offering something affordable, because the cost estimates were too low.
Before Yonkers adopted a richer pension formula for police in 2000, for instance, it was told the maximum cost would be $1.3 million a year. But instead, the yearly cost is now $3.75 million and rising.
David Simpson, a spokesman for the mayor of Yonkers, said pension cost projections were “often lowballs,” so the city could get stuck. “Once you give something, you can’t take it away,” he said.
Police pensions and overtime have been a sore point in Yonkers for many years and were the subject of an exposé in The Journal News in Westchester in 2009. A special audit of police overtime in Yonkers in 2007 found that the police department had failed to enforce its own rules, creating pervasive opportunities for abuse.
Despite all the attention, police are now being paid as flagmen by Con Edison on their days off, Mr. Simpson confirmed, adding that the city was tacking the extra hours onto their pay, which is then reported to the state pension fund.
“The system encourages police to take as much overtime as they can in the last year before retirement. That’s the way the system is structured,” he said. “There’s nothing illegal or unethical about this.”
In fact, a Con Edison spokesman, Robert McGee, said a number of other towns also require the company to use their police officers as flagmen, raising its labor costs.
A spokesman for the New York State comptroller’s office said that the city was in error and pointed to a 1986 decision by the Supreme Court of New York that found that hours worked by police for outside businesses could not be included in their state-paid pensions.
“It has long been established that such overtime from private special duty cannot be included,” said the spokesman, Mark Johnson.
The question of how to pay for generous benefits is proving a challenge to New York and many other states whose revenue has fallen and whose debts have become harder to manage, while public officials try to limit the kind of deep service cuts that often mean political death. Some hard-pressed governments are belatedly coming to the grim conclusion that they have promised workers more than their sagging economies can deliver.
Outside the United States, Greece and Spain have recently reduced government pensions to deal with burdensome debt that has impeded their ability to finance themselves. The new British coalition government has said it will review public pension costs there as well.
Municipalities in this country cannot easily follow suit even as financial problems mount, though, because reducing benefits for their existing employees is considered impossible under the current laws of most states.
The New York State constitution bars public employers from slowing the rate at which workers build up their pensions over the course of their careers. That degree of protection contrasts sharply with the private sector, where companies can generally change the rate at which workers build their benefits at any time. Furthermore, as companies have reduced pensions substantially over the last two decades, states and cities have embellished theirs with sweeteners like inflation adjustments and lower retirement ages that appealed to unions and their members, who vote.
Police and other safety workers are in many cases allowed to retire with full pensions after 20 years. Other workers can often do so after 30 years, even as young as 55, although future hires in New York will have to work to age 62 to get their full benefits, under a law passed in January.
Census data from 2008 show that the typical state or municipal pension is substantially richer than the typical company pension — $15,941 versus $7,904 — for retirees aged 65 and older. By tradition, public employees have said they accepted lower salaries in exchange for better benefits, but the Census data show this has not been true for a number of years. In 2008 the median pay for a worker in the private sector was $39,877, compared with $45,124 for a state or local employee. The data show broad national aggregates that do not try to compare similar occupations.
And, while companies must adhere to uniform federal guidelines about setting aside money to pay pensions, states do not. Some, like New Jersey, have failed to fund their pensions for years and have fallen so far behind they may never catch up again. New York City and New York State have been more diligent about contributing the required amounts each year — but the required amounts now turn out to have been too low, in part because they counted on solid investment returns that have not materialized.
In Yonkers, contributions to the state pension fund keep rising. This year, to save money, the city is proposing to eliminate about 90 police jobs, out of 640. The savings, though, will not even cover the extra cost of the overtime-enriched pensions. Meanwhile, the police say the layoffs will make the situation worse, because shrinking the police force means those who remain must work even more overtime, driving up pension costs even more.
An online, searchable database compiled by The Times contains the names and pensions of about 3,700 public retirees in New York who receive more than $100,000 a year. Information was provided by New York State’s two big pension plans, one for teachers and the other for other state and local workers outside New York City.
Four of New York City’s five big pension funds also provided data. But the city police pension fund listed the six-figure amounts being collected by 536 retired police officers without giving their names. The pension plan for the city’s firefighters has yet to provide the information, as required by public information law.
'It may not be viable.'
Even without names, the pension list from the New York City police plan shows a trend toward very youthful retirement, at a time when the city’s contributions to the police pension fund have risen sharply.
New York City has budgeted a contribution of about $2 billion for this year — about 64 percent of the police payroll, one of the highest pension contribution rates in the United States. That amount does not yet include money to make up for the investment losses of 2008, so the rate is almost sure to rise.
A Variety of Occupations
Not all the people getting six-figure pensions are former police and firefighters from cities with liberal overtime and disability policies. Hundreds more worked at hospitals, power utilities, port authorities and other “public benefit corporations” — hybrid entities that compete with the private sector and pay their officials accordingly, but allow them, at the same time, to participate in the state pension fund.
Edward A. Stolzenberg makes a good example. He started out more than three decades ago in the Westchester County government; today, in retirement, he collects $222,143 a year, one of the biggest pensions paid by the New York State pension fund.
In between, he became county health commissioner, running the Westchester Medical Center when it was a big, struggling county hospital. The county made it a public benefit corporation in 1997, with a mandate to grow and compete with the big hospitals in New York City.
In the process Mr. Stolzenberg’s salary shot up. By the time he retired, he was the highest-paid official in Westchester County, he said, with a salary of more than $400,000 a year. That was still less than the rate at a for-profit hospital, he said.
“In a time when the state budget is pretty bad and money is pouring out, people look at pensions and say, ‘This is terrible! Why are people getting this kind of money?’ ” he acknowledged. “It may not be viable. But that’s the way the state structured it.”
He added that his successor at the medical center was making more than $900,000 and accruing a pension.
Companies that find they have overpromised have a way out. They can declare bankruptcy, and if a judge approves, they can send their pension plans to the federal agency that insures corporate pensions. That agency limits its coverage to what is considered a basic pension, currently $54,000 for a 65-year-old retiree, much less for younger people. If Yonkers could send its police plan to the federal guarantor, for instance, Mr. Tassone, at 47, would have his benefit cut from $101,333 to just $15,660.
But state plans don’t have such an insurance program, much less any definition of a basic, guaranteed benefit.
Federal tax law does put a cap on pension payouts, currently $195,000 a year. Congress set this cap, which has risen with inflation, more than 30 years ago to keep employers from turning their pension funds into abusive tax shelters.
But New York State found a way around it. In 1997, lawmakers created a safe-harbor mechanism allowing retirees to collect bigger pensions legally — a second pool of money called the Excess Benefit Fund. Towns all over the state pay the associated costs, even though only a few of them have retirees who qualify. At least 28 recipients in New York get pensions above $195,000 a year. One of the highest is George M. Philip, who gets $261,037 after retiring as chief executive and chief investment officer of the New York State teachers’ pension fund. Since retiring, he has gone back to work as president of the State University of New York at Albany, drawing an additional $280,000 last year.
New York’s attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, has said public pensions are getting out of hand, and has begun an investigation of places, like Yonkers, where there are unusual concentrations of six-figure retirees.