Chief-Leader
Updated: 5:00 pm, Mon Jun 22, 2015

 

Discussions Intensify on Bill to Bolster Newer Cop/Firefighter Disability Payout

Claim City Asking State to Share Costs

The Chief-Leader/Michel Frian
THE BATTLE MOVES NORTHWARD: Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch, at podium, and Uniformed Firefighters Association head Steve Cassidy, to his right, during this rally at City Hall late last month said Mayor de Blasio had ‘a moral obligation’ to support a bill that would give newer cops and firefighters the same disability rights as those hired before 2010. They will be making that argument in Albany early this week on behalf of union members like Police Officer James Li, to Mr. Lynch’s left, who has still not returned to full duty after being shot in both legs last year by a fare-evader he confronted.

By RICHARD STEIER

Efforts by city police and fire unions to get newer members the same disability-pension rights as those hired before 2009 have been given more time on the clock as a result of other deadlocks in Albany on matters including mayoral control of schools, the extension of rent-control regulations, and possible changes to a real-estate tax break that are key to Mayor de Blasio’s affordable-housing plan.

The unions originally had been racing a June 17 deadline—when the State Legislature was due to adjourn for the year—in their push for equalization of disability rights so that cops and firefighters hired beginning in 2010 would be entitled to the same tax-free pension allowance worth 75 percent of final average salary as more-senior employees. But the midnight hour came and passed without significant progress on any of the key issues, and by the following afternoon it became clear that legislators would be going back into session June 23, the day this newspaper appears on the stands.

‘Still Have a Shot’

“That gives us more time and we still have a shot,” Peter J. Abbate Jr., the Chairman of the Assembly Committee on Government Employees, said last Thursday afternoon.

A gap still remained between what the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and the Uniformed Firefighters Association were seeking—full equalization, regardless of when employees joined the Police and Fire departments—and what the de Blasio administration was offering.

But Governor Cuomo’s continued support of the union effort appeared to be having an effect on the dynamic: by the morning of June 19, Assemblyman Abbate said the city had begun circulating a new compromise offer—the third time it had offered to sweeten the pot while stopping short of what the unions wanted.

He claimed Mr. de Blasio had called UFA President Steve Cassidy and PBA President Patrick J. Lynch late the day before to propose a measure under which the state would pay half the costs of a disability equalization, but if at some point it declined to continue funding it, affected employees would be required to contribute an extra 2.5 percent of their salaries to their respective pension funds.

City: No ‘Unfunded Mandate’

A spokeswoman for the Mayor and Budget Director Dean Fuleihan, who has been leading the city’s effort to limit the costs of a pension improvement, responded that there was “nothing at this point” in the form of a bill to that effect. “We’re continuing to push forward our proposal,” said spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick, “which obviously protects workers and doesn’t stick the city with a huge, unfunded mandate.”

The union leaders, however, have called each succeeding city offer inadequate. The Mayor’s most-recent formal proposal would have addressed a prime union complaint—that the current Tier 3 disability provision could stick cops and firefighters with just a year or two on the job with an allowance of as little as $27 a day—by offering to calculate the benefit against the maximum salary for their titles, rather than their current level on the pay scale. For Police Officers, the difference between starting salary and maximum is nearly $35,000. The unions complained that in the process, however, the city bill would shortchange those hired after 2009 who had already reached top pay by pegging it to that salary level rather than their actual earnings, including overtime, during their final three years of service.

They also objected to a city effort to limit payment of 75 percent of final average salary to those employees who also qualified for Social Security disability benefits.

UFA Leader in Albany

A spokesman for Mr. Cassidy, Tom Butler, said June 19 when asked about ongoing talks, “We’re just not at liberty at this time to discuss any progress.” He acknowledged, however, that the UFA leader had been in Albany the day before with other Firefighter-union officials, and added, “He expects to be in Albany on Tuesday.”

Mr. Lynch has had his ability to lobby in the state capital restricted by an ongoing contract-arbitration battle with the city. It was supposed to conclude last Thursday but will require two additional sessions, according to city Labor Relations Director Robert W. Linn.

The State Senate a couple of weeks ago passed a bill that would equalize the disability benefit for newer city cops and firefighters by putting them on the same footing as their counterparts in all jurisdictions outside New York City who were enrolled in Tier 5 of the pension system, which took effect in the latter part of 2009. One complication under that bill is that it continued the 20-year standard for qualifying for a full pension, compared to the 22-year minimum-service requirement under Tier 3, and moving the newer FDNY and NYPD members to the traditional setup would further increase the city’s costs.

Assembly Resistance?

Mr. Abbate expressed reservations earlier this month about that aspect of the bill. It is possible that he was being mindful of resistance to it by top leadership in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, which is aligned with Mr. de Blasio—a distinct contrast to his frosty relationship with the Senate’s Republican leadership, which hasn’t forgiven him for campaigning last fall to swing the balance of power in that legislative house to his fellow Democrats.

Where Assemblyman Abbate had previously worried that the fact that the only home-rule message sent to the Legislature on the issue had been one backed by the Mayor but opposed by the unions could result in nothing getting done during this session, a Democratic colleague in the Senate, Diane Savino, brushed off that possibility late last week.

She explained in a phone interview, “The one thing that seems clear is there’s a determination to make sure that this is addressed before we go home. The Governor is committed to fix this problem. Now it’s a question of how do you line up the numbers.”

Notwithstanding the unions’ insistence on full equalization and the city’s emphasis on the need to limit costs—Mr. Fuleihan previously put the five-year tab for one city proposal at $105 million while claiming the union bill would cost $400 million over that span—Ms. Savino said, “There’s always been the potential that future changes would be made.”

‘City Plan Unacceptable’

“We’re not doing the city’s plan,” said the Senator, whose district covers much of Staten Island and a slice of western Brooklyn. “It’s unacceptable to the workforce, it’s unacceptable to us.”

She did not rule out, however, the possibility of requiring workers to pay a greater percentage of salary toward their pensions than pre-2010 hires, noting that there were ample precedents for this, including the greater contributions made by sanitation workers and correction officers to secure the 20-year retirement plans that cops and firefighters had qualified for decades earlier.

Unlike the Assembly, where Democrats hold a wide majority, the Senate is split into three factions: the slim Republican majority, the main Democratic conference, and the Independent Democratic Conference, which includes Ms. Savino among its five members. But she said, “We don’t agree on a lot among the three conferences in the Senate, but one thing we do agree on is that compensation for a disabled police officer or firefighter should not be any different than it was 50 years ago.”

Asked whether, with continuing discussions on the issue involving the Governor, legislative leaders, the unions and the Mayor’s Office even after many legislators left Albany last Thursday, a deal might be reached before the session resumed June 23, Ms. Savino replied, “I would imagine that is what is going to happen.”