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.