The Nassau County Police Department is bracing for at least 70 retirements through the end of the year as officers take advantage of overtime earned during superstorm Sandy to boost their pensions.
The three-year anniversary of Sandy represents the first opportunity for law enforcement officers to capitalize fully on overtime notched after the October 2012 storm, when some of them worked as many as 75-100 hours of OT in just over a month.
State pensions are based on the highest average wages earned in three consecutive years, with the last three years typically coming in highest.
The pension numbers are driven by large increases in police overtime as the department's workforce shrank during a three-year wage freeze imposed by the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority, acting Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter said.
"We've known for years that this day was coming and we have prepared for this paradigm shift," Krumpter said.
To date this year, 120 Nassau officers have retired, and 135 left in 2014, Krumpter said. The expected 325 total retirements in the past two years would account for nearly 15 percent of the department's 2,235-member workforce. Since 1999, an average of 130 officers a year have retired.
E.J. McMahon, president of the independent Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany-based fiscal watchdog group, said the Nassau retirements show the pension system is fundamentally broken because it allows benefits such as overtime to inflate pension costs. He argues that pensions should include only an officer's base pay.
As of March 31, 669 Nassau police officers had retired with six-figure pensions, according to Empire Center data.
"The cops are not gaming the system," McMahon said. "But the system, on its face, is designed to be gamed."
Nassau Police Benevolent Association president James Carver said his members have done nothing wrong. "They're just operating under the existing rules," he said.
Suffolk police are not expecting a significant increase in retirements this year as Sandy-related overtime was less than in Nassau, department spokesman Kevin Fallon said.
"We have no reason to believe there will be a big number of retirements toward the end of the year," he said.
About 70 Nassau officers are expected to retire from late November -- the third anniversary of when Sandy-related overtime began to dry up -- until the end of the year, Krumpter said.
Nassau police employees earned $64 million in overtime in 2012 -- with $15 million attributed to Sandy -- compared with nearly $52 million in 2011. Police overtime in Suffolk grew by 5 percent between 2012 and 2013.
"Many of these guys were hired in the 1980s and are saying it's just not worth sticking around another two to three years," Carver said.
Nassau, which is under the control of a state fiscal oversight board and is projected to face a $62 million deficit this year, also will be responsible for an estimated $17 million in termination pay for retiring officers' accrued sick and vacation days, Krumpter said. The county has yet to determine if it will borrow -- as it has in the past -- to pay those costs or dip into the operating budget.
Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD sergeant and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said the retirements will be costly but the county will see long-term benefits from hiring lower-paid officers under a labor contract signed in 2014.
"In the long run the county will benefit, but not in the immediate," Giacalone said.
Detectives union president Glenn Ciccone said his unit is down from 425 members in 2009 to 341. He said 16 detectives retired earlier this year and 10 more expect to leave before year's end.
"Every day, we seem to be sending out goodbye letters," Ciccone said. "We are losing a great amount of talent in a concentrated period of time."
Krumpter said the department waited to begin hiring until the new police labor deals were signed and the wage freeze ended. New hires begin at a lower pay scale and take longer to reach top salary than current officers. They also are subject to new requirements to contribute to their health care and pensions.
But Krumpter said that while overtime increased from $35.5 million to $67.8 million between 2009 and 2014, Nassau saved $115 million during that time by not replacing the more than 500 officers who left the force.
He projected overtime costs will be about $60 million in 2015 as the county brings hundreds of recruits through the academy.A class of 140 officers was hired in May 2014. Three additional classes of recruits, totaling nearly 200 officers, have worked their way through the academy, with a final class of 66 officers expected to graduate next month, Krumpter said.
The department is now preparing for its largest class in two decades, with nearly 200 recruits expected to enter the academy Oct. 16.
"It's going to be a game changer for us," Krumpter said.