New York’s deepening fiscal crisis should refocus public attention on the need to reform the city’s unsustainably costly package of generous retirement benefits for municipal workers.

So far, the reaction of government-employee unions has been depressingly predictable. Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, summed it up this way in yesterday’s New York Times:

“Here we have a situation where the gazillionaires have created a mortgage crisis and credit crisis, and a lot of well-off people have benefited. And so it would be dead wrong to ask workers who average pensions of $19,000 a year to be sacrificed.”

But the truth about public pensions in New York is different than what Weingarten and her fellow union leaders would have you believe.

Under the state Constitution, pensions can’t be “diminished or impaired” for any current member of a public-retirement system in New York. As a result, only future employees would be covered in any new retirement “tier” offering reduced pensions or a 401(k)- style savings plan.

And pensions for most career city employees are a lot higher than $19,000 a year.

Take, for example, Weingarten’s own members. Excluding death benefits and disability payments, the average “service-retirement allowance” for city teachers was $44,612 as of June 30, 2007, according to the annual report of the New York City Teachers Retirement System. Retired male teachers get pensions averaging $53,931; retired women average $40,117 (it’s presumably less because they typically worked fewer years and amassed less seniority).

Among the most recently retired teachers—those aged 55 to 59—last year’s average pension came to $64,007 for men and $56,170 for women. These figures don’t necessarily include all the annuity payments that retired teachers can also receive. Nor do they include the value of free health coverage available to the vast majority of all city retirees and their dependents.

Other retirees? Most city employees, including lower-paid non-professionals, belong to the New York City Employees’ Retirement System. The 4,235 members of NYCERS who retired in 2006 got an average service-retirement allowance of $31,199, or half their final average salary, according to the system’s annual report.

The average service allowance for all NYCERS members—including those who retired many years ago, as well as individuals who spent only a portion of their careers on the city payroll—was $22,606 as of 2005.

The average non-disability pension for New York City police officers, who typically retire in their early 40s, topped $32,000, according to the most recent report from their pension funds. And that doesn’t include a $12,000-a-year supplement known as the “Christmas bonus,” which is also available to city firefighters (whose average pensions aren’t broken out in the most readily available pension-fund financial reports).

The city’s contribution to its five different employee-pension funds has risen from $1.1 billion in fiscal 2001 to $6.3 billion in fiscal 2009. Up to now, much of that growth was covered by the growth in business and income taxes generated by Wall Street firms and their clients.

More than many of the New Yorkers who help pay their salaries, active and retired municipal employees directly benefited from the frothy profits and bonuses of those “gazillionaires” Weingarten now blames for the financial crisis.

Needless to say, it’s time to recognize the easy-money days are over—and not just for investment bankers.

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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