Robert Duffy (May 26, 2010)

Robert Duffy (May 26, 2010) Credit: AP

What once was written off in the political world as ordinary pension practice now raises eyebrows. Mounting payout costs, a bad economy, taxpayer concern and exposed instances of abuse all help make it that way.

This week, Andrew Cuomo's running mate, Bob Duffy, finds himself taunted by Republican Rick Lazio's campaign as "Double-Dipping Duffy" for collecting his 28-year police pension while being paid as Rochester's mayor.

The combined compensation: $197,694. This has to be fun for Lazio and company - not just for the nice triple-D alliteration, but because Cuomo as attorney general generated such high-profile public campaigns against costly pension practices.

But while nobody wants to be called a double-dip downer, Duffy's circumstances do seem benign compared to those glaring pension-abuse cases that have commanded attention.

Duffy is not one of those people who retired from a public job, then began drawing a pension, then went back to the same job. Nor did Duffy retire only to get the same job in the next jurisdiction, or, evidently, crank up overtime to inflate his final three-year average for a higher pension payout. Nor is he one of those lawyers who got pensions from school systems in which they weren't really employed.

Still, you'd have guessed there'd be a mechanism by which an ex-cop or an ex-teacher or an ex-clerk who became mayor or comptroller or legislator, would collect a single reasonable check at a time without creating an oversized combined-pension windfall.

That may develop.

But multicheck gigs remain far from exotic on the public payroll. Billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg does his share of declaiming on employee pension costs. Yet he has had at least four top commissioners in a position to collect salaries and pensions - two as-of-right due to age and two with special waivers to do so.

Duffy apparently didn't need a waiver to collect pension along with salary. He retired from the police force and his pension was his income when he ran for mayor.

Special Section 211 waivers are widely used in law enforcement. Just ask the state's current district attorneys about the merits of hiring experienced ex-detectives at part-time salaries.

David Ernst of the state Civil Service Department recently informed Newsday's Sandra Peddie that the total of 211 waivers in state executive agencies fell from 322 to 163 between June 30, 2008, and March 24 of this year.

Multiple paychecks aren't the only legal pension practices that have gone on for a long time, but attain new newsworthiness (not to be confused with Cuomo's "new New York" or "new Democratic Party"). Also newly newsworthy is the spike in pension obligations on the counties.

In every down cycle, local governments get hit with a double whammy. When investment income from public pension funds fails to provide enough for projected costs, the taxpayers are committed to make up the shortfall. And these extra costs set in at the worst time for the local government: when its tax revenue is down.

To cushion sudden surges in pension obligations, pension payments get phased in over several years. Which means the battering that pension portfolios took in recent years is now reflected in the pension contributions Long Island counties must make.

That's why, as Newsday reported Wednesday, officials in Nassau and Suffolk say they will be forced to pay about $90 million more next year - despite hefty investment gains in the last fiscal year.

Big pension pressure awaits the next governor, too, with no executive waivers available.

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