When my first son was born 21 years ago, we proudly named him Daniel. On a whim I started doing some research into our family history, hunting for Daniels. My dad had a great uncle named Dan, and in the archives of the Brooklyn Eagle I learned that Dan Griffin had served in the early 20th century as the sheriff of Kings County, a.k.a. Brooklyn.
Uncle Dan was the subject of a lot of family stories, but no one had ever told me that he had actually been a one-term congressman. Way back when Woodrow Wilson was president, during World War I, Uncle Dan ran successfully for the House of Representatives. Apparently he didn’t care for Washington much, and after two years gave it up, came home and recaptured his position as sheriff. On my dresser at home I have the badge he carried, along with the Deputy Sheriff badge he bestowed on his brother, Uncle Tim (hey, this is Brooklyn).
During his lone term in Congress, Uncle Dan put forth one piece of legislation. It was a federal law, later passed, creating the first civil service pensions for postal workers. Back then, prior to the New Deal, prior to the rise of public sector unions, you could brave cold and rain and winter hail and all the rest of it to bring the mail on its appointed rounds until you broke down and went home to your tubercular tenement, where, we would hope, someone in your family would care for you in your final days, because your government most certainly would not.
Out of such unjust, Dickensian circumstances, the public pension was born. Individuals and unions sacrificed and fought for decades to create a system that provides a pension and, quite often, health care insurance, for public workers. By these lights, it must be said, we have come a long way.
Our current sheriff in Onondaga County, Kevin Walsh, has his own pension tale to tell, although he declined to reveal the particulars of it during his recent successful campaign for re-election. Following in the footsteps of many politicians, the sheriff used a perfectly legal, although morally repugnant, maneuver that permits him to collect his pension ($82,500) while still working and collecting his salary ($110,000).
And he’s not alone. More recently we learned that our deputy mayor, John Cowin, is collecting a pension in addition to his salary, and apparently hasn’t quite satisfied the legal requirements for doing so. So double dipping has bipartisan support. Those who engage in it have lots of justifications for it, but to the average citizen in Onondaga County, where median household income is about half the sheriff’s salary, it just looks like people who have plenty deciding that they want plenty more.
Those of us who toil in the private sector sometimes look with envy at our neighbors who retire while still relatively young, guaranteed a pension. Those who work for government grouse at times about higher salaries available in the private sector. (Those of us who work in print journalism check “none of the above.”) Danger lies ahead. As our state faces a deficit, one of the easiest groups to target is public employees, especially their benefits. It may get really nasty in the next two years as local governments and school districts, which had to pay next to nothing into public pension funds during the boom years, will be socked with huge levies now that Wall Street’s decline has eaten into the nest egg.
Antics like the maneuver that Walsh perpetrated feed public anger at public employees. Undeniably we need to reform public pensions. Public employees need to pay a larger share of their benefit packages. Retirement ages have to rise over time (both these issues have been addressed in most contract negotiations with public sector unions). Overtime shouldn’t count when your pension is being calculated: It leads to abuse and high costs. Double dipping should end.
But don’t make Sheriff Walsh the poster child for pension reform. The sheriff is not the typical public employee. In New York state, the average pension paid to a civilian retiree is $25,947 anually. Considering that 1,378 retirees received more than $100,000 last year, simple math tells us that there are people subsisting on less than 25K. The average for police and firefighters was $62,208, and two-thirds of those making pensions over $100,000 came from the uniformed services. Before you get riled up over their pensions, consider that many of them were New York City police and firefighters who earned significant overtime working at Ground Zero in 2001 and 2002, and you start to realize that this public pension business is not simple.
These figures, by the way, come from the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. They have an online database at www. seethroughny.com which you can search to find the salary of any public employee as well as the pension of retirees. (Fun fact: Mario Cuomo gets $51,000 annually for his three terms as governor.)
Attacking public employees and public pensions is not a sane way to address our fiscal deficit. But as long as we have prominent leaders who game the system as our sheriff did, we invite contempt for all public employees, including those who labored diligently during their careers and enjoy reasonable retirement compensation as a result.
That’s all that Uncle Dan, a sheriff in simpler times, was asking for.
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