Updated: 5:00 pm, Mon Jun 22, 2015


Fire Unions: Members Earned Their Pensions

Strike Back At ‘Empire’


Uniformed Fire Officers Association President James Lemonda last week heartily defended the pensions of his retired members after the amounts—which averaged more than $100,000 a year for those who retired in 2014—were published online by the non-profit Empire Center for Public Policy.

The fiscally-conservative watchdog group was granted access to the data by a State Supreme Court Justice in April after a four-year tussle with the UFOA, which sued to keep it private. The union claimed the release would violate members’ privacy.

Top 20 Got $189G+

Michael Vecchi, a former Associate Commissioner, topped the list with a pension of $284,624. About $50,000 of that sum is an annuity stemming from extra payments he made throughout his 41 years in the FDNY, according to Capital New York. The top 20 recipients received more than $189,000 annually, and averaged 40 years of service, and former Commissioner Salvatore Cassano received $190,770.

The average pension for 2014 retirees was $100,636, and those members spent an average of 22 years on the job, according to a calculation by this newspaper. But even the nine Firefighters or fire officers who retired last year with 10 or fewer years on the force received an average of $82,073 a year, the data show.

The Empire Center was not granted any information about which Firefighters and fire officers retired with line-of-duty disabilities, which could account for the relatively-similar pensions of members who retired with few years on the job.

Firefighters and officers hired before 2010 are eligible for a pension worth three-quarters of their final average salary tax-free if they are permanently disabled due to a work-related injury. The Uniformed Firefighters Association is locked in a battle with Mayor de Blasio over extending that benefit to members hired after 2009, when then-Gov. David Paterson vetoed a bill that for years had routinely been extended.

A Skewed View

Mr. Lemonda last week noted that firefighters defend millions of lives and billions of dollars in property daily, and said that most of those with the highest pensions were not rank-and-file Firefighters—they were officers who retired at the FDNY’s upper echelons.

“Through personal determination, sacrifice and dedication, they have climbed the ranks to their respective positions,” he said.

While the Empire Center data does not list ranks, making it impossible to know how many of the 15,911 members are officers, those making at least $150,000 averaged 32 years on the job.

Noting the overwhelming response by Firefighters and fire officers after the attacks of Sept. 11, Mr. Lemonda said in an e-mail, “Our members continued to work 24/7 for months on end in that toxic stew, despite assurances that the air was safe to breathe...

Thousands of firefighters and fire officers have become seriously ill; many have succumbed to their illnesses. Why? Because that is what we took an oath to do. These members have dedicated their lives to this department and city and have earned their pension which is provided by statute.”

Rise in Disability Pensions

The Empire Center, using separate data, also announced that a much-larger percentage of firefighters now retire with line-of-duty disability benefits than did years ago. Seventy-three percent of those who retired between the years of 2002 and 2013 retired with permanent line-of-duty injuries.

UFA President Steve Cassidy, asked by WCNY’s Susan Arbetter to comment on that figure, said, “It is a high number. It’s directly related to 9/11...Firefighters were breathing in toxic smoke for nine months. As a result, thousands and thousands of firefighters became permanently disabled.”

Asked to respond to figures in the same Empire Center report that showed that even before Sept. 11, the percentage of firefighters and officers retiring with disability pensions jumped from 40 percent to 60 percent of the force, Mr. Cassidy said, “And I think they’re right, but those are injuries that have been sustained over a 20- or 25- or 30-year career.”

Mr. Lemonda declined to comment on that issue.