Updated: 5:02 pm, Mon Jun 22, 2015


Editorial: Pension Stats Misdirection


The release of Fire Department pension amounts for those who retired in 2014 by the Empire Center for Public Policy last week showed that the average payout was just over $100,000 and that the top 20 recipients—a group that included ex-Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano—averaged $189,000.

Those numbers launched tabloid editorial cries against a bill that would grant city cops and firefighters the same disability benefit—equal to 75 percent of final average salary, tax-free—that their counterparts in all other areas of the state are now entitled to if they suffer a career-ending injury or illness in the line of duty. That sentiment is as misguided as it is unfair.

The bill at issue is not going to give the affected cops and firefighters, all of whom were hired after 2009, the same basic Tier 2 pension that was discontinued by a June 2009 veto by then-Gov. David Paterson. It will merely give them a more-generous—and we would say warranted—disability allowance than the 50 percent of final salary, which is further diminished by the amount of whatever Social Security benefits they are receiving, that is provided under Tier 3.

To some degree the figures released by the conservative think-tank are skewed by those at the very top of the pyramid among last year’s 166 FDNY retirees. Besides Mr. Cassano, who qualified for a pension of $190,770 based on a final salary of $205,180 combined with a remarkable 45 years of service, Michael Vecchi, a former Associate Commissioner, got an allowance of $284,624 accumulated through 41 years of service plus additional contributions he made to the Fire Pension Fund over the years.

As can be seen by those examples, the biggest payouts went to those who were high up in the FDNY hierarchy and served well beyond the 20-year standard for qualifying for a full pension. (Under Tier 3, it is now 22 years before more-recent police and fire hires can qualify.)

Empire Center head E.J. McMahon has pointed to the rise in the percentage of disability pensions over the past decade as one reason for concern. Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy has countered such arguments by pointing to what he regards as an aberrational event—the World Trade Center terrorist attacks and the toxic fallout experienced by firefighters who spent weeks and months scouring the wreckage for human remains—as both the reason for the rise and the counter-argument against this trend continuing, since those covered under Tier 3 came on the job too late to have been exposed to those toxins.

A mitigating factor that the Empire Center neglected to mention is that one consequence of 9/11 is that the tendency of many firefighters—to a far-greater degree than cops—to stay on the job long after passing the 20-year mark (and swelling their pension allowance by 1.67 percent of final average salary for each additional year worked up to 36 years, with a lesser fraction kicking in after that) is likely to diminish. The deaths of 343 FDNY members on that fateful day 14 years ago produced a jarring sense of mortality for those who survived, making more than a few of them reluctant to tempt fate by working for as long as they otherwise might have.

The intent behind restoring the longtime disability benefit is to provide an allowance sufficient to permit those no longer able to do the physical tasks that are essential to being a cop or firefighter in the field to retire with a decent income, rather than forcing them to work years or even a decade or two in limited-duty slots that could otherwise be filled by a full-duty employee in a patrol car or on a fire truck.

That should not be lost in pension numbers that in context offer an apples-to-oranges comparison.