firefighter-union-1112535The New York State Professional Firefighters Association (PFFA) was not at all pleased by the Empire Center’s news release last week highlighting the generous pensions of recently retired local police and firefighters. The union has responded by posting this “warning to legislators” accusing of us of clinging to “statistical sleight of hand rather than legitimate analysis.”

Specifically, PFFA President Michael McManus claims the Empire Center (and this writer, in particular) “unfairly attacked” the pensions of police and firefighters when we reported that one out of six cops and firefighters retiring in 2012 had qualified for maximum pension benefits of more than $100,000.

Says McManus:

McMahon … twists segmented data and asserted that the annual pension benefits received by members of the police and fire retirement system are excessive.

The truth is this: after careers that in many cases span more than 20 years, the average retirement benefit for members of the state’s police and fire retirement system is approximately $42,000.

But it’s McManus who’s twisting here: that $42,000 figure he cites represents the average for allretired cops and firefighters, including individuals who retired decades ago. Our release quite clearly referred to the average $69,379 maximum benefit allowance for cops and firefighters who “retired in calendar year 2012,” as computed from data provided by the pension system. If you want to get a handle on how well cops and firefighters are doing are doing under current contracts, the latest annual average is what matters. Rising taxpayer-funded pension contributions don’t reflect the costs of paying pensions to employees who retired long ago; they reflect the cost of paying promised pensions to employees who will retire in the future, including the near future.

Picking up from McManus:

My review of the [Empire Center] “report” left me scratching my head – especially the list of top pensions received in the state. More specifically, the statistics he provides indicate that 17 of the top 20 pensions received in the state are a result of the common employee retirement fund – not police and fire. The average benefit of these non-firefighters and police officers – but rather college presidents, doctors, administrators is $209,876 – nearly five times the average pension earned by police and firefighters.

Well, yes–and so what? If you look at the top 20 highest current public pensions in New York, helpfully listed in a supplement to our release, where McManus found it, you will indeed find that 17 recipients were not cops or firefighters but members of the Employee Retirement System. However, if you look at our separate list of the top pensions for employees retiring in 2012, you’ll find that 12 of the top 20, and 40 of the top 50, were police and firefighters, all of whom worked for the Port Authority or local agencies in Long Island and the lower Hudson Valley.  (Memo to Mike McManus: that’s what’s known as a simple fact. Twist-free.)

The union chief continues:

McMahon is relying on misdirection to support his statistical sleight of hand. And, is relying on the age-old truism, with the vulgarity cleaned up for this posting: If you can’t win on the facts, dazzle them with your footwork.

Again, what “statistical sleight of hand” is he talking about?

Finally, McManus turns to the state law allowing police and firefighter unions to demand compulsory binding arbitration of their contract disputes.  He writes:

Some of the nation’s most credible economists have studied the issues surrounding binding arbitration. And these researchers from Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have reached the following conclusion: that binding arbitration settlements mirror those of traditional negotiations.

We’re fully aware of that research, which is discussed and questioned in our recent Policy Briefing on the need for arbitration reform.  The bottom line: if arbitrated settlements replicate traditional negotiations, why are unions like the PFFA so desperate to retain arbitration privileges?

We do sincerely appreciate McManus’ effort to avoid vulgarity, however.

About the Author

E.J. McMahon

Edmund J. McMahon is Empire Center's founder and a senior fellow.

Read more by E.J. McMahon

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