ALBANY — Ninety retired government workers and teachers statewide are eligible to collect more than $200,000 a year in pensions and more than a quarter of them worked on Long Island, state records show. In all, nearly 8,000 retirees statewide can collect in excess of $100,000 a year.
They include a retired school superintendent on Long Island, who is eligible to collect $325,854, and a retired Queens College history professor who is provided $561,286. Most public pension benefits are exempt from state taxes, unless pensioners move out of New York, and many pensioners also get free health care coverage for life. Many also can provide part of their pension to their surviving spouses.
Those on Long Island eligible to collect more than $200,000 a year were 27 former teachers and administrators, the records showed. State records don’t indicate if the retirees are collecting the checks and do not disclose their home addresses, as matters of privacy.
A review of comparable, publicly available data for the biggest public pension funds in the state and in New York City found the number of pensioners eligible for benefits of more than $200,000 rose from 83 in 2013 to 90 last year. The number of pensioners eligible for benefits of $100,000 or more climbed from 7,542 in 2013 to 7,748 last year.
James A. Feltman, who retired in 2010 as superintendent of the Commack school district, tops the list of Long Islanders who can get $200,000 or more in pension checks. Feltman retired after 24 years of public service with a pension of $325,854 a year.
He is followed by Sheldon Karnilow, who retired in 2011 as superintendent of Half Hollow Hills school district with a pension of $322,650, records show.
Other top pensioners include those who worked for the City University of New York, the Port Authority, the state University at Albany, New York City schools, and the Long Island Power Authority.
The U.S. Census Bureau calculates New York’s average state pension at $25,000 to $29,999 a year. That puts New York in the second-highest category, with Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Georgia and Oregon. The average state pension is more than $30,000 a year in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Colorado, Nevada and California.
LIPA’s top pensioner is Stanley B. Klimberg, who from 1995 to 2007 was the general counsel at the agency and is eligible for a pension of $189,353 a year. Paul Decotis worked in LIPA’s Albany office as vice president of power markets until he retired last year and took a job with a Manhattan energy company. The former deputy secretary for energy for Gov. Eliot Spitzer is eligible to collect a $139,541 state pension. James Peterson, former director of power contracts at LIPA, is eligible to collect $131,687 a year since his retirement in 2008 after 42 years in government.
The records showed 447 former Nassau County workers and 399 former Suffolk County workers were eligible to collect pensions of more than $100,000.
Nassau Healthcare Corp. — a public benefit corporation that runs the Nassau University Medical Center, the A. Holly Patterson Extended Care Facility and five clinics that serve the poor — has 27 former workers who can collect pensions of more than $100,000.
“They are outliers and there are thousands of them,” said E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a fiscally conservative think tank that tracks pensions. “There is an increasing number of cops with $100,000 pensions, which shows how inflated their paychecks were in their last few years. Pension systems weren’t created to enrich people. . . . It is not meant to provide more than the average person in the average job.”
The median working household income in New York State is $53,843, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many public employees can make that in retirement. For example, a state retiree 55 to 64 years old who worked for 35 years and had a final salary of $67,733 can get a pension of $50,650 a year, according to state comptroller’s office records.
Some of the top pensioners are part of earlier pension “tiers,” which allowed for annual pensions to exceed final salaries, because unused sick time over the years and other credits were factored in. Most tiers or versions of public pensions have allowed for accumulating overtime pay in the final three years of work. That inflates the lifetime pension, which is based primarily on an employee’s most recent or highest salary.
Direct comparisons of funds and trends in high pensions are difficult because some pension systems, such as the New York City employees and firefighter pensions, don’t have reports available that can be compared with other state and city pension systems.
Boosted by overtime
Many of the biggest pensions go to police officers and firefighters with high final-year salaries boosted by overtime. They include 11 retirees from the NYPD who are eligible for pensions of more than $300,000 a year and Suffolk County Deputy Inspector Henry Mulligan, who retired in 2013 and is eligible for a $184,548 pension after 38 years on the job. High pensions also go to physicians, lawyers, executives with special expertise who worked long careers, and to teachers and school superintendents with more than 30 years in the system, which provides annual raises and automatic “step” increases for years of service.
“When we think of superintendents, we are basically thinking of leaders of large organizations, with multimillion-dollar budgets and thousands of employees,” said David Albert, director of communications at the New York State School Boards Association. “If you don’t have a large pool of applicants, you may have to pay more.”
The salaries for these administrators, who often have doctoral degrees in education, also can be driven up by the salary of a superintendent in a neighboring district, he said.
He said the jobs demand leadership, fiscal and education skills as well as the ability to communicate a budget to taxpayers. “It is a highly specialized role,” Albert said.
LIPA also cited the need to attract specialized talent — many of whom often have long public-sector careers — with larger salaries to live in a high-cost area.
“We have a combination of new staffers with experience we were able to recruit and longer-serving employees with tremendous experience . . . and institutional knowledge,” said LIPA spokesman Michael Deering.
Taxpayers are on the hook in two ways for public pensions. They fund the employer’s contribution — from the state, local governments and school districts — for each public employee. If Wall Street investments by pension funds decline, then taxpayers must pick up the slack to fully fund the pension systems. Taxpayers also are obligated to provide the pensions under the state constitution, meaning that even many local governments that face potential insolvency over rising pension costs can’t cut the benefits.
Public pensions in the state are more secure and generous than those of most New Yorkers. Many private-sector workers have seen their pensions disappear and more New Yorkers now have 401(k) accounts, in which they and potentially their employers contribute into investment funds with a tax benefit if the money isn’t tapped until retirement.
Govs. David A. Paterson and Andrew M. Cuomo have reduced pension benefits for future employers in creating less generous versions of the pension for recent employees. But the biggest savings from those actions are decades away.
“The outliers are going to be controlled in the future, but the system as a whole exposes taxpayers to risk,” McMahon said. “It’s a time bomb because it’s completely guaranteed and, no matter what, you have to pay for it. The leading edge of baby boomers took place 15 years ago, now we’re hitting the sweet spot for everyone.”
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