November 11, 2014

Editorial: Right Disability Wrong


The pension status of Kenneth Healey, the rookie Police Officer who was struck with a hatchet by a Muslim radical on a Queens street three weeks ago, provides another compelling argument for restoration of the old disability benefit equaling three-quarters of the recipient’s final average salary, exempt from city and state taxes, that has been denied to cops and firefighters hired after 2009.

Officer Healey survived the brutal attack, which ended when his colleagues fatally shot the assailant, and has since left Jamaica Hospital for a rehabilitation center. It is not known whether he will be able to return to work at some point.

If he was unable to, he would receive the disability pension equal to 50 percent of final average salary that has been provided to cops and firefighters hired beginning in 2010 under Tier 3 of the retirement system, as well as those hired beginning April 1, 2012, when Tier 6 took effect providing the same disability allowance. That pension, which is no different from what one of those employees would receive for a normal service retirement—except that their salaries would be much higher and thus so would their allowances—is subject to state and city taxes and is further reduced by any Social Security benefits they receive. That means that the actual value of the disability pension is no more than 44 percent, and can be as little as 33 percent, of their final average salary.

For Officer Healey, who is earning the beginning rate of $41,975 for cops but also gets a 10-percent night-differential allowance, that would mean a basic pension of slightly more than $23,000, but once those other deductions were figured in, it would drop to as little as $15,400.

Under the old Tier 2 extender bill that had been temporarily approved every two years for more than three decades before then-Gov. David Paterson vetoed it in 2009, his potential allowance would have been nearly $35,000, reduced only by Federal taxes.

The disparity was first dramatized in April, when Police Officer Rosa Rodriguez was hospitalized for an extended period because of the damage she sustained to her lungs while trying to rescue people from a fire in a Coney Island apartment building. Her partner, Dennis Guerra, died as a result of the damage he suffered during the rescue attempt. But a bill that would have restored the old Tier 2 disability benefit was stalled due to opposition by Mayor de Blasio, who cited the estimate by then-Chief Actuary Robert North that it could cost the city as much as $35 million a year.

There are two things worth noting about the price-tag. One is that it is a worst-case estimate, and the actual cost is likely to be significantly less. The other is that Mr. North, during an interview with this newspaper shortly before he retired less than two weeks ago, was sharply critical of the Tier 6 legislation on several grounds, among them the disability provision. Speaking two days before Officer Healey was attacked, he cited the case of Ms. Rodriguez—who because she has about four years on the job would actually be eligible for a pension worth thousands of dollars more than the rookie cop’s should she have to leave service—and said, “You ought to give her a chance to retire with dignity for her service.”

Mr. North also noted that the city wouldn’t necessarily be saving money because of the Tier 3/Tier 6 pension in such cases. The financial hardship it would impose on disability retirees, he said, made it more likely that, if physically capable, they would try to continue in their jobs in light-duty assignments at full salary.

The retired Chief Actuary suggested politics had motivated Mr. Cuomo to push through Tier 6 and boost his credentials as a Democrat who is tough on unions. It’s harder to understand why Mr. de Blasio has failed to push to restore a meaningful disability benefit.

But as Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch said last week, “It is immoral to ask police officers to risk their lives to protect the city and then fail to provide adequate support if they are permanently injured while doing so.” The same holds true for firefighters, who because of the nature of their work are more likely than most cops to suffer the kind of lung damage sustained by Officers Rodriguez and Guerra.

When the de Blasio administration decided to settle the lawsuit brought by the Central Park Five for wrongful imprisonment for nearly $41 million in June, there were veteran cops who questioned how the Mayor could call that decision “a moral obligation” yet object to restoring the Tier 2 disability benefit on the same grounds. Those arguments have picked up steam with the revelation in the Nov. 9 Daily News that city lawyers had recommended not going higher than $15 million to settle the suit in the Central Park Jogger case, yet Mr. de Blasio ordered his Corporation Counsel to make the deal for nearly three times that amount.

Juxtapose those two situations, and it’s not hard to understand why cops and their unions question whether the Mayor supports them as much as he should.