More public employees striking it rich with 6-figure pensions

Recent changes mean police and fire department recruits

Recent changes mean police and fire department recruits in many Hudson Valley communities will contribute more of their salaries toward health care costs but nearly all still will be eligible for generous pension plans. (Feb. 2, 2013) (Credit: Xavier Mascarenas)

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In the past two years, 73 newly retired police and firefighters from the Hudson Valley joined the ever-growing ranks of the state's six-figure pension earners, according to public data obtained by Newsday.

Long Islanders dominate a list of nonteacher public employees in the state who retired with six-figure pensions in 2011 and 2012. Those earners make up just over 50 percent of the total number of retirees, according to state records.

Westchester County ranks fourth statewide in the number of six-figure pensioners, with 62, according to records obtained under a Freedom of Information Law request.

The growth in big pensions is part of a trend. Since March 2010, the number of six-figure public employee retirees statewide has increased 58 percent, according to statistics maintained by the Empire Center, an Albany-based think tank.

The new crop of blue-chip retirements come as municipalities struggle to keep up with rising pension costs, accountable in part to the 2008-09 stock market dive. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators in 2012 enacted a less expensive pension system for new hires -- but it will take years before municipalities see real savings.

Cuomo recently proposed allowing municipalities to defer some of the costs into the future, but that plan has met with skepticism from unions and fiscal conservatives, who fear it would raise costs too sharply down the road.

TOP NEW PENSIONS IN HUDSON VALLEY

In the six-county Hudson Valley region, 73 of the 112 new retirees during the 21-month period covered by the data were entitled to pensions exceeding $100,000 a year. Of those, 62 had retired from jobs in Westchester and 38 from jobs in the City of Yonkers.

Mayor Mike Spano's office did not return a request for comment about the Yonkers pensions.

Among the top new pensions in the Hudson Valley is that drawn by former Clarkstown Police Chief Peter Noonan, whose salary of more than $300,000 was scrutinized by residents and the media alike while he was still working.

In retirement, Noonan is entitled to $193,892 annually.

"You're kidding me? And he's not even working?" said Bob Forrest, a Town of Ramapo taxpayer who is concerned about the rising cost of living in Rockland County. "This is why we can't fund schools and roads, even bridges, just the bare necessities that every person is looking for."

Noonan could not be reached for comment.

Of course, some of those drawing the pensions see the issue differently. George Kielb, a 55-year-old retired Yonkers fire commissioner, said he worked 33 years in a grueling job to earn his pension. Kielb is entitled to $139,745 a year. He recalled that he started as a firefighter in 1979, making about $12,000 -- far less than his peers were making in factory jobs. He said that the politicians who negotiate contracts too often point the finger at workers when budgets are scrutinized.

"The people who are doing the jobs don't set the policies," Kielb said. "When everything doesn't turn out like they thought, they blame the worker for what they gave you."

Hartsdale Fire Chief Ed Rush defended the pensions of three deputy chiefs who retired from his department. They, too, were among the Hudson Valley's top 10 new pension earners: Richard G. Leo with a pension of $186,510, Michael F. Vicari with $141,602 and Peter H. Hirsch with $139,077.

"It's an extremely demanding job, and it's something that the guys are earning," Rush said. He said he resents the use of the term "pension padding" in relation to police and fire pensions.

In New York, pensions for most police and firefighters are based on either the highest one-year salary or an average of the three highest years of pay, including overtime. Critics of the system have charged that police and firefighters cooperate to maximize overtime just before an individual's retirement, in effect "padding" pensions.

"Some of the public sentiment makes it seem as if police and firefighters are getting handouts ... it's not. The guys are earning it," Rush said.

Although Forrest agreed that police and firefighters perform demanding jobs, he also stressed a need for limits.

"There has to be benchmarks. You have to have a reference point," Forrest said. "The governor is only making $175,000. How can I in good conscience be paying a retiree more than $175,000?"

SAVINGS PREDICTED

Reforms enacted by the Cuomo administration are designed to contain pension costs for new employees.

"The tricks and gimmicks that led to inflated and padded pensions have been curtailed as part of an effort that saves state and local governments -- and ultimately taxpayers -- $80 billion over the next three decades," Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said.

E.J. McMahon, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, said the new system will save money, but not by cutting pensions significantly. McMahon said the savings will come from higher employee contributions.

"Will Tier 6 lead to fewer six-figure pensions? The short answer is no," McMahon said, referring to the pension system for new employees. McMahon figures that employees who work 35 years will still be guaranteed 65 percent of their final average salaries -- just slightly less than the 67.5 percent that workers in Tier 4 and Tier 5 will obtain.

Six-figure pensions are the exception. The average pension for police and fire retirees in the fiscal 2012 was $42,259, according to the office of state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. For nonpolice and fire employees, it was $20,241.

Still, the number of people receiving six-figure pensions in the state has risen rapidly. In March 2010, there were 1,378. Twenty-one months later, there are 2,178.

Correspondingly, overall pension payouts are climbing. According to a website maintained by DiNapoli, the pension fund paid $8.86 billion to retirees in 2012, up from $4.2 billion in 2001.

TOP TEN

The 10 highest pensions for local retirees filing for benefits since early 2011 came from police and fire departments in Rockland and Westchester counties:

Noonan, Peter Police chief Town of Clarkstown $193,892.04

Leo, Richard G. Deputy fire chief Hartsdale Fire District Commission $186,510.00

McLaughlin, James D. Police captain City of Yonkers $170,104.44

McCaffrey, Cornelius Job unavailable City of Yonkers $147,766.56

Fitzpatrick, William A. Job unavailable City of Yonkers $145,515.96

Daly, Daniel Police captain City of Yonkers $142,303.32

Vicari, Michael F. Deputy fire chief Hartsdale Fire District Commission $141,602.40

Kielb, George Fire commissioner City of Yonkers $139,745.76

Hammer, James T. Job unavailable City of Yonkers $139,662.48

Hirsch, Peter H. Deputy fire chief Hartsdale Fire Dist Commission $139,077.48

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