NY lawmakers buck trend to contain pensions

by Lise Bang-Jensen |  | NY Torch

School superintendents don’t get overtime, but that didn’t prevent former Niagara Falls School Superintendent Carmen A. Granto Jr. from collecting a pension larger than his salary. He did so by cashing in 45 unused vacation days and 747 unused sick days, the Buffalo News reports.

In New Jersey, Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney is taking on similar pension padding. He “glowered with disgust as he described how one New Jersey town paid out nearly $1 million to four retiring police officers for their unused sick days and vacation time,” according to the New York Times.

“At some point, you reach the limit of your ability to pay,” said Sweeney, who is a top official of the iron workers union in New Jersey. The article cites a number of “labor friendly politicians” nationwide who in the past “happily pension sweeteners and other benefits,” but now want to scale them back.

New York legislators appear to be bucking the national trend. Despite declining tax revenues and growing pension costs, state legislators have introduced at least 50 bills to sweeten pensions and retiree health benefit, writes Carol Kellerman of the Citizens Budget Commission.

Albany’s willingness to force higher pension costs onto local governments and taxpayers is one major cause for the relentless rise of property taxes across the state….

Bills before state lawmakers would: roll back Tier 5 by lowering retirement age for employees with 35 years of service; prohibit the state or local governments from reducing retiree health benefits; allow MTA employees and their spouses to get retiree health benefits after only 10 years instead of 25; and add to illnesses that would allow firefighters and State Police to retire with disability benefits at three-quarters salary.

Those bills do not include pension enhancements for individual retirees, which the Schenectady Daily Gazette opposes in an editorial, “No time for pension sweeteners” (by subscription).

Meanwhile, one state legislator, Assemblyman Jack Quinn, a Republican from Erie County, advocates an overhaul of the pension system for future employees. Among his proposals for future employees:

All new state workers become part of a defined-contribution plan, like those almost universal in the private sector. Local governments and school districts would get the option to choose the retirement-plan model that best suits their budgetary needs. Each local entity could retain its defined benefit plan, switch to the optional retirement plan used by SUNY or opt for a pure defined-contribution package.

Originally Published: NY Public Payroll Watch, June 28, 2010