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Long Beach seeks to sweeten retirement benefits

Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman speaks at

Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman speaks at the Allegria Hotel during an announcement of the premier of the city's new "Open for Business" ad campaign. (July 11, 2013) Credit: Barry Sloan

Long Beach wants to lower the amount of employment time managers need to retire with lifetime taxpayer-funded medical benefits -- a move officials say will make the city more competitive in hiring but residents have criticized as too generous.

Management employees, such as the city attorney and city clerk, now are eligible for retirement health benefits after age 55 if they have worked as managers for the city for 15 years, or after 30 years, regardless of age.

A proposal before the city council would eliminate the age requirement and lower the service time to 10 years, or five years if the employee has also completed five years of employment with New York State, another municipality in the state or the U.S. military.

Every city and town on Long Island offers retirement health benefits to management and union employees, but the minimum service requirements and employee contributions vary widely.

They range from North Hempstead's offer of fully paid health benefits upon retirement for managers who work at least five years, to Babylon's requirement that managers must have 25 years of employment and pay 25 percent of the benefit costs.

Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman, who supports the proposed change and would be eligible to benefit from it, said the lowered requirements are designed to enable the city to attract talented managers.

"It's my job to go out and hire. As we recruit and retain top talent here in Long Beach, this is a model that has worked elsewhere," he said.

Long Beach residents, including West End Neighbors Civic Association president John Bendo, have opposed the proposal, saying it will be fiscally onerous for a city still recovering from a financial crisis created by an $18-million deficit between 2008 and 2012. The city declared the crisis over in September.

"I don't understand the logic that a civil servant deserves better benefits than the people who are paying for them -- the taxpayers," Bendo said.

The board will vote on the measure Jan. 21.

The change would apply to 19 current Long Beach management employees, who must pay 10 percent of the cost of their health care benefit while working and in retirement. City officials say it's unlikely the city will ever employ more than 20 managers.

The more than 400 members of the city's union workforce are eligible for fully paid retirement health benefits after 15 years of working for the city, except for police and fire department union members, who become eligible after 20 years.

Schnirman said the proposed change would bring Long Beach's retirement benefit closer to those offered by many other Long Island municipalities. Huntington employees, for example, receive fully paid benefits if they retire after age 50 with 15 years of service.

Hempstead is less generous, offering retirement health benefits to employees who are 55 and have worked for the town for 30 years or are 62 and have worked for the town for 10 years. The retired employees' contribution depends on when they were hired; recent retirees contribute 15 percent.

Municipal employee retirement health care policies have come under fire from tax advocacy groups on Long Island and around the country. East Islip TaxPAC founder Andrea Vecchio called the costs "an enormous burden."

"Long Beach should be going in the other direction," she said.

But the retirement benefit packages are an important equalizer for public employers, which typically offer lower salaries than private businesses, said John Rizzo, chief economist with the Long Island Association. Public employees usually earn 10 to 15 percent less than similarly qualified private employees, he said.

"It's reasonable that public employees should expect better benefits," Rizzo said. "The question is how much less compensation should they receive."

Long Beach councilman Len Torres said the city will need to make its decision about lowering the requirement based on the cost to the taxpayer.

"We need to know the dollar amount," he said.

But he and other officials said that assessing a cost to the change would be difficult because it is impossible to project when employees will retire and how long they will make use of the benefit.

With Sarah Armaghan, Siobhan Barton, Bill Bleyer, Sid Cassese, Scott Eidler, Lauren R. Harrison, Mackenzie Issler, Ted Phillips, Carl MacGowan and Nicholas Spangler

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