LI has most 6-figure pensioners in NY
ALBANY -- Long Islanders dominate the list of non-teacher public employees in New York State who retired with six-figure pensions in 2011 and 2012, making up just over 50 percent of the total, according to state records.
Of the 426 retirees who received $100,000 pensions statewide during that time, Nassau had 121 and Suffolk had 93 -- most of them police officers. No other counties come close. New York County (Manhattan) ranked third with 63 and Westchester County was fourth with 62, according to records obtained under a Freedom of Information Law request.
Long Island workers traditionally are among the highest paid in the state, which can place them among the top pension earners. In 2011-12, Nassau and Suffolk counties accounted for $24.9 million of the $50 million total statewide in pension payments for those in the more than $100,000 category.
The growth in six-figure pensions is part of a trend. Since March 2010, the number of six-figure retirees statewide has increased 58 percent compared with statistics maintained by the Empire Center, an Albany-based think tank.
The retirements come as municipalities struggle to keep up with rising pension costs, including having to make up for pension fund losses due to the 2008-09 stock market dive. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators in 2012 enacted a less lucrative pension system for new hires -- but it will take years before municipalities see real savings.
Cuomo this year proposed allowing municipalities to defer some of the costs into the future, but the plan has met with skepticism from unions and fiscal conservatives who fear it will raise costs too sharply in the future.
Meanwhile, the burden on counties has grown.
"These pensions become much bigger parts of their budgets going forward, crowding out funds for other services," said Mark Tenenhaus, director of municipal research at RSW Investments Llc, a Summit, N.J., investment advisory firm.
The Long Island resident added: "There is only so much money you can get out of the taxpayers."
Nassau's pension contributions cost $121 million in 2012 -- 3.48 percent of its budget, according to the comptroller's office.
Suffolk estimated last year's pension contribution at about $151 million -- 4.7 percent of its budget, according to a bond-offering statement.
Recipients said the generous pensions were earned over long and arduous careers.
Wayne Birdsall, a retired Nassau police detective who spent the last 18 years of his 38-year career in the special victims unit, said he and his peers "deserve every nickel" because of their service to the public -- and the job's unique stresses. At $184,000, his pension is the highest of any Long Islander who retired in 2011-12.
"Every day I talked to children and adults who had been raped or sexually abused -- if anybody thinks I don't deserve the pension, let them do what I did," Birdsall said. "These are things you don't forget; you look in the eyes of a little 4- or 5-year-old and you tell me that doesn't have an effect on you."
Earned and deserved
Andrew Fal, who retired after leading Nassau's narcotics and vice unit, said that his 451/2-year career began with a starting salary of $7,000.
"So what might not seem overly generous now by today's standards -- no one counted on the salaries being the way they are now," Fal said. At almost $149,000, his pension is the 12th biggest on Long Island for those who retired in 2011-12.
"I've seen my share of the action," he said, citing as one example Long Island's "heroin epidemic" around 2006 and 2007. "We put quite a dent in it; that's what we do as police officers."
James Carver, president of the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association, faulted elected leaders for shrinking the size of the police force to around 2,250 from 2,720 in January 2009. That has driven up overtime, which, in turn, increases pensions.
"Those pensions were definitely higher due to the overtime that was mandated to keep the public safe," he said. The last class of police recruits was in September 2008. "Just do the math," he said.
A spokesman for County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, said that a new class of police recruits should begin this year.
Big payouts weren't just for policemen.
Eileen Minogue, former director of the Northport-East Northport Public Library, had the second biggest pension of 2011-2012 retirees on Long Island, at just over $170,000. She didn't return a call seeking comment.
Statewide, the most generous pension for any 2012 retiree went to Milton Pachter, a retired lawyer for the Port Authority. He is set to receive an annual $250,874 pension.
Ernesto Butcher, the Port Authority's retired chief operating officer, ranked No. 2 in the state with a $196,487 pension. Butcher could not be reached for comment.
Pachter said he worked for the Port Authority for 57 years with no overtime and hardly a day off. He retired because his pension -- partly due to formulas that weigh years of service -- was higher than his salary.
But he said, "I'm still a volunteer; I come in every day and I don't get paid. I do a lot of the same stuff I used to do -- I counsel, I mentor."
Last fall, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a Democrat, announced an 11 percent increase in the amount local governments must contribute to support public-service pensions in the next fiscal year. That means county governments alone will pay $900 million in pension costs, according to the New York State Association of Counties. That's more than double what they paid in 2008.
The state's Common Retirement Fund still has a little ground to make up to return to the $155 billion peak it hit before the stock market meltdown. After falling as low as $110 billion, it now has climbed back up to $151 billion. Pension payouts are guaranteed by the state constitution, so when stocks do poorly, as they did particularly in 2008 and 2009, government employers have to make up the difference.
The new set of pension benefits, called Tier 6, increases the retirement age and the number of years an employee needs before becoming vested in the system, calculates final average salary over more years and prohibits the use of overtime to calculate annual pension benefits. The Cuomo administration has hailed the plan.
"The tricks and gimmicks that led to inflated and padded pensions have been curtailed as part an effort that saves state and local governments -- and ultimately taxpayers -- $80 billion over the next three decades," Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said.
However, E.J. McMahon, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, said the main reason the new tier will save money is because workers will be contributing more.
"Will Tier 6 lead to fewer six-figure pensions? The short answer is 'No,' " he said. Employees who work 35 years will 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, he calculated.
Six-figure pensions are the exception. The average pension for police and fire retirees in the 2011-12 fiscal year was $42,259, according to the Office of State Comptroller; for non-police and fire employees, it was $20,241.
Still, the number of people receiving six-figure pensions 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 DiNapoli's website, the pension fund paid $8.86 billion to retirees in 2012, up from $4.2 billion in 2001.