Uniformed police officers may be boosting their public pensions by working private details such as a supermarket grand opening, a Walmart Black Friday or crowd control at a rock concert.

The state Comptroller’s Office says overtime reimbursed by a private company does not count toward an officer’s pension benefit.

But the Times Union found that several Capital Region police departments — including those in Colonie, Schenectady and Troy — report private duty overtime to the retirement system.

“I think a lot of people might be surprised to the extent with which this happens around the state,” said E.J. McMahon, president of Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany think tank. “You can actually bolster your pension with time spent working in uniform on private time.”

Taxpayers should care about the practice, McMahon said, because pensions are lifelong payments backed by taxpayer dollars.

The legality of using private duty details as part of the pension calculation is murky. Several retirees are appealing the comptroller’s position in state Supreme Court.

The retirement of a Guilderland police officer who worked overtime at Crossgates Mall brought the issue to the attention of many Capital Region police chiefs. As a result, Guilderland stopped reporting private work to the retirement system and, last month, Bethlehem prohibited officers from working the jobs.

Albany and Saratoga Springs also comply with the comptroller’s view that private overtime is not pension eligible.

The issue raises the question of whether a police officer on a private job is acting as a police officer at the public’s benefit or a security guard for a company’s benefit.

“Anytime a man or woman is in police uniform, they are on police duty, period,” Colonie Police Chief Steven Heider said.

Heider considers the officers on-duty, accountable to the police department and exposed to the dangers of police work.

Last year, Colonie police collected about $120,000 in reimbursements from private entities for police details, which Heider said are assigned by rotation. About 40 percent came from patrols at Colonie Center mall.

The town reported the wages to the retirement system as pension eligible.

Colonie requested guidance from the comptroller about whether to report the wages as pension eligible, but never heard back, Heider said. If the comptroller advises Colonie to stop, the town will, he said.

The comptroller’s office says retirement benefits for government workers are based on service to a public employer, and wages reimbursed by a private entity do not qualify.

“I think we’ve been consistent that private duty overtime is not reportable,” said Thomas Nitido, deputy comptroller for the New York State and Local Retirement System.

Typically, pension benefits are calculated based on the salary and overtime earned by police officers during any three consecutive years, usually the final three because they tend to be the highest.

The retirement system attempts to control salary spikes at the end of an employee’s career. The retirement calculation does not count earnings that are significantly higher than earnings from the previous years. Also, government employees hired after 2009 have caps on how much overtime is eligible for pension credit.

A 2010 investigation by then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo found a widespread pattern of government employees inflating their pension benefits by increasing their overtime as they neared retirement.

In one case, an employee worked more than 1,000 hours of overtime in the years approaching retirement despite having worked no overtime prior to that period.

The investigation did not distinguish between regular overtime and overtime reimbursed by a private entity.

The comptroller’s office has rejected some police officers’ overtime claims.

While reviewing the retirement application of a Guilderland police officer in 2007, the comptroller’s office questioned his overtime hours, many worked on private details at Crossgates Mall. The comptroller removed the wages in the officer’s retirement calculation.

Guilderland officers still work details at Crossgates and other private details, but the town no longer reports them to the retirement system.

Last month, Bethlehem essentially banned private duty jobs to comply with the comptroller’s ruling.

“Policing is inherently a public function and I don’t think it’s good policy to have police services paid for by a private entity,” said Town Supervisor John Clarkson. Town officials were also aware of the Crossgates case.

Last year, one Bethlehem officer approaching retirement earned $30,000 in overtime, including about $16,000 from a private detail with one company.

Bethlehem usually has about $15,000 worth of private police details each year, mostly road races. But last year was unusual. The town had $63,000 of private police details primarily because Kinder Morgan, a Texas-based energy company, was building a pipeline in the area and equipment was stolen from its construction site. Kinder Morgan hired Bethlehem police officers to watch the site and stop traffic when large pipes were being delivered.

The company reimbursed the town for more than 1,000 hours of police service and those hours were reported to the retirement system as pension eligible.

Under the town’s new policy, police will no longer perform those jobs.

Bethlehem will still post officers at intersections for road races and other special events, but will not bill organizers, Clarkson said.

Every police department should end private-duty jobs, said McMahon, the pension system watchdog.

“It’s just questionable,” he said, “and one can see how it might get out of hand so you might as well avoid it.”

© 2014 Albany Times Union

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