New Yorkers are used to seeing the leaders of various municipal employees unions get hot and bothered about relatively trivial issues. It’s who they are; it’s what they do. Being anything but shrinking violets, these outspoken union bosses like the attention their outrage generates. And being seen as standing up in defense of their supposedly put-upon members always helps when they run for re-election.

But even understanding that phenomenon, we’re at a loss to understand the righteous indignation of several fire unions over a ruling that the New York City Fire Pension Fund must make public the name and pension amounts received by retirees.

The controversy was stirred up by a ruling last May by the state Court of Appeals in the case of Empire Center v. New York State Teachers’ Retirement System. In it, the court unanimously held that the public has the right to know the names as well as pension amounts of retired public employees.

With that ruling on the record, the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative watchdog group that has highlighted the looming threat to the state and city’s finances posed by skyrocketing public pension costs, filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to get information about Fire Department retirees’ pensions from the New York City Fire Pension Fund.

Suit to block disclosure

But Uniformed Fire Officers Association Local 854 and Uniformed Firefighters Association Local 94 sued in state Supreme Court  to block the release of that information, arguing that retirees had a right to privacy and that disclosure of their names would put them at risk.

How that disclosure poses any threat whatsoever to retirees, we’re still not exactly sure. Neither was the court, apparently. Last week, a Brooklyn state Supreme Court justice ordered the New York City Fire Pension Fund to comply with the center’s FOIL request for the pension information.

“This is another win for openness,” said Tim Hoefer, the executive director of the Empire Center. “We hope the New York City Fire Pension Fund will promptly comply with Judge Sweeney’s order and provide us with the information we asked for nearly a year ago.”

Taxpayers’ right to know

He added, “Taxpayers are on the hook for these pension payments, and they have a right to see who will be benefiting from these promises.”

We agree. These are public employees whose pay and benefits come from public money. So the public that kicks in all this money so these public employees can have nice lives in their retired years has a right to know how much they’re getting in benefits. The unions make no sense when they argue otherwise.

The claim that retirees’ safety will be put at risk is hogwash. And state Supreme Court Justice Peter P. Sweeney said the union failed to prove that implausible claim, saying “[O]ne would think that if someone who had a grudge against a law enforcement officer, he or she would already know his or her name,” according to a statement on Empire Center’s website.

In the face of that irrefutable logic, the unions apparently plan to turn to politicians, who are notoriously afraid to say no to public employee unions. (Remember when state lawmakers created the Public Employee Relations Board as a sop to unions? When the unions can’t get what they want from the state and local governments in contract negotiations, they can bypass government and go directly to the union-friendly PERB, which has no stake in keeping costs down.)

What is there to hide?

Patrick Dunn, a spokesman for the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, which is the union driving this opposition, told the Advance, “We have no legislation introduced, but we are exploring the concept of legislative redress.”

All they need to do is pick out a couple of pliable lawmakers in each chamber of the state Legislature and they could drum up a bill with fairly widespread support, we’d bet.

This, despite the fact that their case against disclosure makes no sense — unless, of course, they would prefer the public not know about individual pensions, such as those that have been fattened up to the point that some might call excessive.
But again, public employees owe the public at least basic information about how pension funds are being spent. This is not just nosiness on the part of the Empire Center.

As the think-tank points out, state and local governments in New York are committed to pay out billions in pensions and post-retirement health care for public employees, much of it not funded at this point.

(New York’s total unfunded liability for public-sector retiree health insurance alone comes to nearly $250 billion, according to Empire Center.)

The center rightly calls this a ticking time bomb.

Union leaders focused on the here and now don’t want to hear about it, and neither do politicians eager to curry favor with these unions as they continually eye re-election, but ordinary New Yorkers should know that we are dumping more and more indebtedness onto future generations in their haste to make the unions happy today.

That bill is coming due, perhaps someday very soon.

© 2015 Staten Island Advance

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