The Chief

December 10, 1999

Gov. Vetoes 1, OKs 2 Police, Fire Bills

By William Van Auken

Governor Pataki signed into law two pension-related bills sought by police and fire unions, while vetoing a third. The actions, taken Nov. 30, received mixed reviews from union officials.

The vetoed measure, the so-called death gamble provision, was the piece of legislation that the police unions had lobbied most heavily for in the last legislative sessions.

'Final Salary' Bill Moves

Signed by the Governor was a bill allowing the city and other local governments statewide to adopt a tier-equity measure that would permit cops and firefighters who are Tier 2 members to base their retirement benefits on their final year's salary. Presently benefits for Tier 2 members are computed based on an average of the final three years' salary.

Before city police officers and firefighters benefit from the measure, however, the City Council must pass local legislation, which could face a mayoral veto.

The second bill provides line-of-duty (LOD) benefits for cops and firefighters who contract HIV, tuberculosis or hepatitis while employed by the city. The law presumes that the disease was contracted in the performance of the employee's duties, and would thereby award LOD three-quarter pensions to cops or firefighters who are disabled, as well as LOD death benefits to their families.

The bill, passed by the State Legislature in June, follows earlier legislation providing similar benefits for members of the Fire Department's Emergency Medical Service.

Vetoes was a bill providing members of Tier 2 the so-called "death gamble," currently awarded only to the survivors of Tier 1 members.

The benefit goes to the families of members who die after completing 20 years of service and, while being eligible for a pension, continue working. The measure would have provided the considerably higher benefits enjoyed under Tier 1, which are equal to the pension reserve that would have been established had the member retired from the service on the day preceding his or her death, plus accumulated contributions.

Tier 2's 'Gamble'

Tier 2 non-LOD death benefits provide the equivalent of three times the member's final annual salary, plus the reserve for increased take-home pay, if any.

Noting that the measure was expected to cost the city $6 million during the present fiscal year, and other government employers another $9 million, Governor Pataki termed the bill an "unfunded mandate on localities." He also questioned the equity of providing the enhanced benefits to one section of Tier 2 members and not others.

In his veto message, the Governor called for his "Task Force on Public Employee Pensions," established earlier this year, to evaluate this and any legislative proposals "in a comprehensive fashion."

"We're extremely happy that we finally have some Tier 2 reform," Uniformed fire Officers' Association President Peter Gorman said in response to the signing of the final average salary bill. "This affects most of our members."

The fire officers' leader approached the HIV legislation as a matter of equity within the Fire Department. Referring to the legislation passed for EMS personnel, he said, "Firefighters do the exact same emergency medical service as EMS, and we face the same hazards."

Mr. Gorman acknowledged that the death gamble veto represented "a big disappointment."

'Funds Can Afford This'

"We really thought that this was a minimal cost item and the pension funds are well-funded to provide the benefit to the widows," he said. "It'll be on our front burner for the new legislative session in January."

Lieutenants' Benevolent Association President Tony Garvey said that the death gamble bill had represented the "number one priority" of the police unions in the last legislative session and said he was "quite disappointed" by the Governor's action.

"It's sad that the governor vetoed this," he said. "People came into the police and fire services in the past because of the benefits they received. Now the Police Department is having a serious problem recruiting new officers and we will continue having one unless we find a way to enhance these benefits. That should include taking care of the families of police officers and firefighters who die."

Mr. Garvey was less enthusiastic about the final salary measure, saying that the unions had "many hurdles to overcome" before any of their members would benefit from the legislation.

As for the HIV legislation, he described it as a "minimal cost" measure. "It's about taking care of people who for the most part have terminal diseases," he said. "I wouldn't want to be a recipient of such a benefit."