Capital News 7:25 p.m. | May. 29, 2015

Fight over disability pensions for police, firefighters heats up

By Sally Goldenberg and Gloria Pazmino

A fight over disability pension benefits escalated on Friday, with the de Blasio administration defending its proposal and police and fire unions and members of the City Council claiming it short-changes uniformed workers, forcing them to choose between a better line-of-duty pension or a higher cost-of-living increase after retirement.

The issue was the subject of a feisty rally outside City Hall, led by the leaders of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association and the Uniformed Firefighters Association, both of which have been at odds with de Blasio over this issue for more than a year.

"The mayor has a bill that he thinks solves the problem. It doesn't. This bill is a disgrace," U.F.A. president Steve Cassidy said during the demonstration which preceded a Council hearing.

P.B.A. president Pat Lynch said providing good benefits to workers is "an issue and a moral obligation that the city has had for 75 years and has let drop." He then referred to Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposed bill as "nothing but a press release."

At issue is how to resolve the diminished disability benefits for New York City's uniformed work force following a change in 2009 that reduced the pension from 75 percent of a final year's salary to 50 percent. The change, instituted by former governor David Paterson to save money during the recession, further cut pensions by deducting Social Security benefits.

Union leaders have been clamoring for the Council to pass a "home rule message" allowing the state Legislature to bring more recently hired of officers and firefighters into parity with earlier hires. City pension changes require state approval. A bill has been introduced in both houses of the Legislature that would make all disability pensions equal, regardless of date of hire.

De Blasio opposes that bill, introduced by Assemblyman Peter Abbate, citing fiscal concerns. The mayor's aides say it would cost $400 million through Fiscal Year 2019 to create parity between the tiers for all uniformed workers, which also includes sanitation and correction employees. Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has yet to take a position.

Under increasing pressure, de Blasio came up with his own, more modest plan earlier this month. It does away with the Social Security offset altogether and would base the pension amount on the highest maximum salary a union member could receive, thereby helping newer hires who have yet to reach the top of the pay scale.

To pay for that, the plan would reduce the cost of living adjustment (COLA) for retirees to a lower rate, which existed before the third tier was created in 2009.

The de Blasio administration originally planned to simply push this change but, at the request of certain Council members, has agreed to amend its bill to give employees the option to opt out and maintain the current third tier of benefits.

“I think that the reason for the substitute bill was that we submitted a bill, questions were raised by the council members and we thought that they were issues that we should address and the new bill will substitute for it,” labor relations commissioner Bob Linn said at Friday's Council hearing.

That created further controversy, with members of the Council and union officials saying the opt-out provision applies to current city workers and the administration insisting it will be available to future hires.

The Council, at Friday's hearing, also complained it did not have sufficient time or information to make a decision. Time is of the essence, as there are only two weeks left in the legislative session in Albany. If the Council does not act on either de Blasio's plan or the parity proposal, two legislative leaders have vowed to pass a different bill that would apply statewide and thereby circumvent the Council's role in the process.

"You have seen the proposal. An issue was raised and we are amending the proposal to deal with the issue that was raised. You will have that next week," Linn told members who said they did not have sufficient information.

A bill is online but must be amended to include a more accurate cost estimate that reflects the opt-out change. Linn said it would cost taxpayers roughly $47 million through F.Y. 2019.

Councilman Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, said the mayor's proposal puts employees in a tough spot: While current workers would be able to choose their benefit option upon retirement, new employees would have to choose at the time they are hired, without knowing whether or when they would be injured in the line of duty.

"It seems like an odd choice to ask people to make, to choose between two benefits scenarios really that clearly benefit you one way or the other depending on when you would be injured if you were to be injured," Lander said.

Linn replied, "I don't know, but we clearly wanted to make sure that everyone who's currently on board has the choice at the end of their career to see which would be better."

Governor Andrew Cuomo has come out in support of the unions on this issue, as a separate fight escalates between him and de Blasio.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, an ally of the uniformed unions, cited the governor's support during a heated exchange with Linn.

"There is a state bill right now which has the governor’s support, the Senate support, it has the Assembly support as well as 39 of my colleagues," she said. “You talk of some other more substantive bill, but it’s not before us, how could we even consider that today? Where is your substitute bill?”