The Chief

January 7, 2000

 

Alter Uniformed Force Vesting Bill

By William Van Auken

The State Legislature sent Governor Pataki an amended version of a bill granting five-year vesting rights to members of the city's uniformed forces and other state public employees Dec. 28 after modifying the legislation to keep Police Officers, Firefighters, Sanitation Workers and Correction Officers from being covered retroactively.

The alteration led the Giuliani administration to drop its objection to the measure, sharply increasing the likelihood of its being signed by the Governor.

The bill is designed as a "clean-up" measure, correcting an error made in 1998, when the State Legislature pushed through a large number of public employee pension pieces, including a supplementation bill.

Private Sector Link

The legislation was meant to bring state public employees' vesting rights in line with those prevailing in the private sector, requiring five years of service for all public employees to vest. Most of the city's civilian employees had previously needed 10 years of service to become eligible for the deferred retirement benefit while cops, firefighters, correction officers and sanitation workers had to have 15.

Drafters of the vesting bill last year inadvertently neglected to amend sections of the city's Administrative Code and the Retirement and Social Security Law covering the city's uniformed forces as well as some New York City Transit workers and employees of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.

The Giuliani administration, which had opposed five-year vesting from the outset, waged a particularly vigorous lobbying campaign against the original fix-it bill.

Members who quit the uniformed forces before reaching retirement age are required to submit an application 30 days prior to resigning from the service in order to obtain their vesting rights. The city argued that, by making the law apply retroactively to July 1998, when the original vesting piece was enacted, the clean-up legislation would override this requirement.

Meant to Stymie Rogues

The 30-day advance notice was introduced with the aim of preventing cops accused of misconduct from quitting with partial pension benefits bvefore disciplinary charges could be filed leading to their dismissal.

A vested member who leaves the Police Department before being eligible for retirement is able to begin collecting a partial retirement allowance on the 20th anniversary of his or her entry into the service. The allowance is equal to 2.5 percent of the final three-year average salary for each year on the job. Thus, a police officer who elects to quit and vest after five years would receive a retirement benefit equal to 12.5 percent of salary, while one with 10 years would get 25 percent.

Of greater cash value for those leaing city service after five years would be their eligibility for medical insurance once they reach retirement age, a benefit provided to all city retirees.

Inspector Joseph Maccone, the Chief Administrator of the Police Pension Fund, reported that his office has received numerous calls about the anticipated new vesting option.

In a Dec. 29 letter drafted by Mayor Giuliani's Legislative Representative, Anthony P. Piscitelli, the city noted its oppostion to the original measure, citing "significant budget consequences" and an estimate by the Chief Actuary that the bill will cost approximately $8.7 million a year.

The letter described the amended measure, however, as "a significant improvement" over the original draft. The first draft, it said, "unintentionally would have provided many of these benefits to certain non-members ... and would have increased the risk that some members would have received a pension after being found guilty at disciplinary proceedings."

City Drops Objection

Because of the Legislature's withdrawal of the retroactivity provision for the uniformed forces, the letter concluded, "the City of New York has no objection to this bill."

A pension expert familiar with the redrafting of the legislation said that the city's real worry was that some former police officers with more than five but less than 15 years of service, who were involved in high-profile scandals, would become eligible for pensions.

"It was Volpe and Schwarz [Justin A. Volpe and Charles Schwarz, convincted in the 1997 stationhouse assault on Abner Louima] as well as some other cops who quit before they could be fired," the expert said. "They alleged that they had about 30 guys out there who were a concern."

The clean-up bill originally made vesting rights for those not covered the first time retroactive to July 17, 1998, when the pevious pension package was signed into law. It gave the respective retirement systems 60 days to notify all members, including those who had left their departments, that they would be eligible to apply for the deferred retirement allowance. Members would then have one month to return applications for benefits.

While the two cops convicted in the Louima case, for example, were fired after verdicts were rendered in their trial earlier this year, they were still on the NYPD payroll when the original vesting legislation was passed, and would have been eligible to apply.

Faced with the pressure from City Hall and a threat by Governor Pataki that he would veto the bill unless retroactivity was taken out for the city's uniformed forces, legislators decided to settle for "half a loaf," and the Senate passed an amended bill.

Governor Pataki has 30 working days from receiving the bill to either sign or kill it.