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State pensions - among other outrages

Writing this post left me troubled on several fronts. Steamed actually.

For starters -- and believe me, I'm just warming up -- there's this story from the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle about the high cost of public employee pension in New York State.

Taxpayer support of state and local public employee retirement programs has increased more in New York than any other state except Arizona, recently released U.S. Census data show — and the Empire State's $486-per-resident cost in 2007 ranked highest in the nation.

New York, meanwhile, is one of only a handful of states where employee contributions have declined over the past decade.

Little wonder that Gov. Paterson has proposed a pension reform package that The New York Times explains like this:

 Workers in the state pension system would have to work until they were at least 62, instead of 55. The changes would apply to all state workers, many city employees, including teachers, and employees of a number of municipalities outside New York City.

New workers would also have to contribute 3 percent of their pay to the pension system for their entire career; currently the contributions stop after 10 years of service. And workers would no longer be allowed to use overtime in their last year of service to bolster their future pension payments.

Mr. Paterson’s move is reminiscent of steps taken by many American corporations over the last two decades, including changes initiated by the Big Three automakers several years ago.

The Rochester D&C reports those reforms are not being warmly received.

Despite a projected $15.4 billion state budget gap over the next 15 months and a nearly $32 million shortfall in Rochester for 2009-10 — the proposals are not likely to go anywhere this year.

"I don't believe that these proposals will be part of the year's budget," said Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, part of the new Senate majority and newly-appointed chair of the civil service and pension committee. "I don't believe they should be either, for that matter.

Now, that caught my attention. Who exactly is this Senator Diane Savino?

A press release issued by her office the other day announcing her appointment as committee chairman told me all I needed to know:

Before being elected to office in 2004, Senator Savino was a powerful advocate for working families as the Vice President for Political Action & Legislative Affairs SSEU Local 371. With the large number of union and civil service households, both working and retired, in the 23rd District, she is looking forward to continuing her advocacy in the Senate. 
"In today's unstable economic environment, it's crucial for us to protect retirees’ hard-earned pensions and ensure their income security," said Savino.

Great. We have a union person overseeing the pension committee who is committed to the status quo -- and is loud and proud about it.

There's more.

Savino I looked up who has contributed to her campaign since 2004. Take a look for yourself. 


She's raised $953,836 and just for kicks, I went through the contributors that start with the letters A, B, C and D.


The "As through Ds" have given have given a total of $255,887. Unions account for $108,475 of that, and probably more, because not all the contributor names make it entirely clear who they are or what they do.


AFSCME, one of the major public employee unions, jumped right out, with $43,700 in contributions. And that's just in the "As." Go to "L," as is "Local," and there's "Local 1549 AFSCME" and the like. They added up to at least another $27,150.


So AFSCME is into Savino for at least $70,900.


And there's a lot more where they came from. At least 22 unions listed in the "As through Ds."


One non-union contributor caught my eye. No other than Responsible New York, which gave $1,000 in October.


Way to go, Tommy Boy. Is Senator Savino your idea of reform?


("Tommy Boy?" Did someone say "Tommy Boy?" Oh, what the heck, we could use a laugh at this point.)



So this is the way it's gonna be? The Dems take control of the Senate and they, among other things,  put Savino in charge of the pension committee? An honest broker, she is not. Can't be, actually.


Of course, Savino is chairing more than one committee, even though she is one of the Senate's more-junior members. I guess that's what happens when you serve as co-chair of the Democratic State Senate Campaign Committee. And don't hail from north of Yonkers.


Meanwhile, we folks in Western New York have two state senators, William "Sticking With Stachs" Stachowski and Antoine Thompson. They've each got one committee chairmanship.


In other words, Staten Island has as many committee chairmanships as all of WNY.


Savino, by the way, is entitled to a stipend to chair the Civil Service and Pension Committee. But because she's also the chair of the Majority Steering Committee, she's required to take one stipend or the other. She took the bigger one attached to the Majority Steering Committee worth $20,500 a year.


There, now, I feel better having gotten all that off my chest. Let's get back to pensions.


The Rochester D&C reported that the average state or local government employee who retired a decade ago received an average pension of $15,026. The average pension for those retiring last year was $27,744.

According to my math, if the pension payout of a decade ago only kept pace with inflation, those retiring last year would have drawn $19,039. Which is to say public employee pensions are going up a lot faster than inflation.

This is even more true when you zero in on cops and firefighters statewide. The numbers:

Average pension for those retiring a decade ago: $37,413.

Last year: $58,106

Last year, if kept to inflation rate: $47,404.

We see it playing out here in Buffalo.

My colleagues Sue Schulman and Mary Pasciak have done a series of stories over the past year detailing pension abuses. They include cops working huge amounts of overtime in the years leading up to retirement, in some cases boosting their pensions beyond their base pay -- tax free, to boot.

Reported Sue and Mary:

Patrick McDonald keeps setting records. When last heard from, the 59-year-old police officer had accumulated more than $123,000 in overtime last year, and his $189,000 in total earnings was a record high for the Buffalo Police Department. Now, McDonald’s pension is record setting, too.

At $105,361 annually, McDonald’s pension is not only the highest of any retired police officer in Buffalo, it’s also among the highest — possibly the highest — pensions of any municipal employee in all of Western New York.

And it’s nearly twice the $58,000 base pay McDonald earned as a police officer.

School administrators, meanwhile, can retire as young as 55 with a big pension they continue to collect while taking another big-paying education job. 

The state retiree who most benefits from this practice is James H. Hunderfund, 64, a Long Island superintendent who makes $200,000 a year from one school district on top of his $316,245 pension from a nearby district. And while no educator in Western New York can match Hunderfund’s $516,245 in payments, two dozen, including (former Pioneer Central Superintendent David) Kurzawa, have double dipped in the past three years alone.

It's no wonder that Empire Center for New York State Policy, among others, has been sounding warning alarms for several years. In its 2006 report entitled Defusing New York's Pension Bomb, the center said:

Skyrocketing pension expenses have been a major factor in the fiscal stresses afflicting every level of government in New York State. From 2000 to 2005, statewide public pension contributions soared by more than $5.6 billion-and they are still climbing. In New York City alone, higher annual pension costs have consumed three-quarters of the new revenue generated by a record property tax rate increase and rising property assessments since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002.

The problem has only gotten worse, as the D&C story attests to.

Then again, "problem" is in the eye of the beholder. Just ask the good senator from Staten Island.



State government
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