Suffolk judge's salary among highest in state

Judge Stephen Behar (June 18, 2010)

Judge Stephen Behar (June 18, 2010) (Credit: Ed Betz)

Rick Brand

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Newly elected County Court Judge Stephen Behar has put himself in a position to make more money than federal judges or New York's highest-ranking judge.

On Dec. 30, the day before his term was up as a $122,700-a-year District Court judge, Behar, 67, who was about to become a county court judge, put in his retirement papers to qualify for a state pension paying as much as $50,300 a year.

Counting the $14,000 raise Behar gets for becoming a $136,700-a-year county court judge, the pension could bring his annual earnings to as much as $187,000. That beats U.S. district court judges, who make $174,000 a year, and the state's highest-ranking judge, the chief judge of the state Court of Appeals, who earns $156,000.

District and county court judges are part of the state judicial system and their salaries are set by the state Legislature. They also earn state pension credits.

Behar has become the latest public employee who is double-dipping - collecting a retirement pension but then remaining on the public payroll.

Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer, civil service chief Alan Schneider, the Suffolk Legislature's presiding officer's top aide Terry Pearsall, as well as a number of county and state lawmakers), all collect salaries and pensions.

The state comptroller's office confirmed that Behar, a Republican, officially retired on Dec. 30; he has 21.17 years in the state retirement system, after serving 13 years as a judge and time as an assistant town attorney, and in several part-time municipal legal jobs. That makes him eligible for a state pension of more than 42 percent, based on the final average annual salary of his last three years as a district court judge.

Mark Johnson, a spokesman for state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, said the office has not completed its calculation of Behar's pension credits and that the judge will initially receive estimated pension payments. The amount Behar ultimately receives could be less if he takes one of a number of options that would allow him to pass on his benefit to another beneficiary.

Behar did not return numerous calls for comment. When approached at a Suffolk Republican fundraiser last month, he said, "I can't talk about that now." A call to his office the next day elicited no response.

The disclosure of Behar's pension comes to light at a time of calls to reform the state pension system and when the state faces a gaping budget hole and the prospect of major service cutbacks and layoffs. It also comes at a time when judges have bemoaned a lack of raises since 1999. State legislation was signed into law late last year that will create a seven-member judicial commission to set judge's salaries, though the first raises won't be seen until April 2012.

Those who defend double-dipping say employees have earned their pensions and have experience that cannot be replaced. They also note that the taxpayer saves money because the government doesn't have to contribute to the retired employee's pension any more, and it doesn't have to pay for a replacement's health insurance costs.

"It's not illegal," said Legis. Jon Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor). "But it rubs taxpayers the wrong way. It gives the impression the system is being gamed. . . . And it's inappropriate."

David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the state Office of Court Administration, said only a "handful" of the state's 1,300 judges also take a pension, though he could not say exactly how many. "We don't have a say in any of this," he said. "It's beyond the scope of the court system. These are not employees that we hired. They are duly elected public officials."

State law bars municipal retirees under age 65 from earning more than $30,000 in any year if they return to work for state or local government unless they get a waiver from the state. But Behar is free from that restriction because of his age.

It will not become an election issue because Behar, who has a 10-year term, does not have to run again and is required to retire at age 70.