September 30, 2011

Cuomo Inks Bill Ending ‘Pension Roulette’ For City Cops, Firefighters

By Mark Toor

Police and fire union leaders cheered Governor Cuomo’s Sept. 23 decision to sign a bill that would make it more difficult—but still not impossible—for the city to strip police officers and firefighters with more than 20 years’ service of their pensions.

“The bill brings city police and fire closer to what the rest of the state has already had for 100 years, and carries with it no extra fiscal impact to taxpayers,” Michael J. Palladino, president of the Detectives Endowment Association, said in an interview. “The spirit of the bill is certainly not to encourage bad behavior for those who pass the 20-year threshold, it’s intended to protect what cops and firefighters have earned over a 20-year career.”

Took Risk Staying After 20

Officers and firefighters are eligible for a full pension after 20 years, but under the previous system the pension was not guaranteed until the employee actually retired. It’s rare, but officers and firefighters with more than 20 years on the job have been fired and lost their pensions over department disciplinary issues, criminal convictions, and failed drug tests. Mr. Palladino estimated last year that one Detective whose pension was revoked after a perjury conviction lost more than $2 million over his lifetime.

Under the new law, officers and firefighters will be “deemed to be retired” on the date they are fired, meaning they’ll get their pensions. In pressing for the bill, union leaders said that most cops now retire after 20 years to avoid a possible loss of pension. They refer to working past 20 years as “pension roulette” because they never knew when an incident would spiral out of control and result in criminal or administrative charges that could result in firing and loss of pension.

The threat was unique to the NYPD and FDNY. Police and firefighters in the rest of the state fall under the Policemen’s and Firemen’s Retirement System, which does not provide for losing pensions after 20 years. The state system also does not require that members lose their pensions if convicted of a felony. After former Gov. David Paterson vetoed a similar bill guaranteeing city pensions last year, that provision was added to this year’s version in hope it would make it more palatable.

“I believe Governor Cuomo recognized that the unions compromised on the original bill by adding the felony provision in an attempt to answer some of Governor Paterson’s objections,” Mr. Palladino said.

Other current public officials do not have to fear losing their pensions. Mr. Cuomo signed an ethics bill at the end of the last legislative session that for the first time allows (but does not require) judges to take pensions away from state elected officials and lawmakers convicted of job-related felonies. Because the State Constitution protects pension benefits, the law applies only to those elected in the future.

Supporters of the police-pension bill agreed with the unions that losing a pension was an unfair penalty to the employee’s family, which would not have been involved in any wrongdoing and would have depended on the benefit. They also said a career of 20 years or more should not be invalidated by one mistake.

Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said, “We have seen many police officers over the years lose their pensions when they were fired as sacrificial lambs or for the sake of political expediency. This law prevents that injustice from ever occurring again.”