Police Union Criticizes Effort to Reduce a Pension Benefit
By MICHAEL WILSON and AL BAKER
It is as ingrained a catchphrase for city police officers as “New York’s Finest.” It is “20 and out,” and officers know it means if they have 20 years on the job, they can retire with a full pension.
Gov. David A. Paterson’s proposal to extend that length of service to 25 years for new hires was met with sharp criticism on Wednesday by the union representing police officers, where it was seen as a callous disregard for the tolls of police work. The city portion of the proposal was developed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, and is estimated to save the city $5.4 billion over the next 20 years.
The proposal also includes creating a minimum retirement age of 50 before a full pension can be received. There currently is no minimum retirement age, and many officers who retire after 20 years are in their early 40s. The rule of “20 and out” would effectively become “29 and out” for a 21-year-old recruit.
The changes, which would also affect the pensions of firefighters, would require City Council approval as well as passage in Albany.
Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the union representing police officers, said changing the pension was breaking a longstanding promise to new recruits.
“For decades, the city has managed to pay less than a market rate of pay for dangerous emergency service jobs because of the promise of stability and a fair pension,” Mr. Lynch said in a statement on Wednesday. “Remove those incentives and no one will want to take the risks or suffer the physical and mental toll those jobs inflict.”
After 20 years on the force, the average New York City police officer earns roughly $90,000 annually, including overtime pay and other salary enhancements, said Charles M. Brecher, research director at the Citizens Budget Commission.
With a pension worth half of the final year’s annual salary, plus a $12,000 annual lump sum payment called a variable supplement, a retired officer can receive roughly $57,000 a year, which is not subject to state or city income taxes, he said.
“It’s an expensive system, and generous, compared to other public employees,” Mr. Brecher said.
Under the proposal, the $12,000 annual payment would also be eliminated, and the pension would be calculated using an average of salaries for the final three years of employment, not the last year.
E.J. McMahon, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, said the governor’s proposals would fix an outdated system and help rein in the city’s rising pension costs.
“ ‘Twenty and out’ reflects an era where, after 20 years of police work, if you were in your early 40s, you did not necessarily have that much longer to live,” Mr. McMahon said.
He said the pension for city police officers was so known for being lucrative that, unlike other municipal employees, “police officers are the only ones who have the pension in the back of their mind when they take the test in their early 20s.”
Eugene J. O’Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said it was hard to determine the effect that a less generous pension plan would have on recruiting. One problem, he said, is that the Police Department seemed to be downsizing somewhat and doing little recruiting, and moreover, the sharp increase in unemployment had made it easier to recruit future cadets.
Robert W. Linn, a former director of labor relations for New York and the president of a labor relations consulting firm, said that the overall compensation package should be re-examined. “If, in fact, New York City base salary is not competitive and the pensions are worse than in other jurisdictions, it will be hard to attract police. It should be no problem attracting people with 25-year pensions if base compensation is also competitive.”
In August, the police unions and the city reached an agreement that would increase starting pay to $41,975, up from $35,881 under an old contract. It followed an arbitration panel’s awarding police officers a retroactive raise while significantly raising starting pay to $35,881, from $25,100.
At Columbus Circle, two officers emerging from the underground police command center said the proposed changes might give prospective officers some pause.
“Being a police officer is a hard job,” said a 23-year-old officer with two years in the department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to violate Police Department rules. A pension in 20 years was a draw to this career, he said. “An extra five years isn’t bad, but if you work in the busy houses, it can burn you out.”
Professor O’Donnell said many of his students who planned to join the Police Department were attracted to this year’s increase in starting salaries for officers and paid little attention to pension issues.
But Steven Heimer, 21, who had just completed his police final minutes before, said the new proposals might deter him from joining the department.
“Twenty is a big difference from 25,” he said. “If you want to do something afterward, have your own business, you’d have to wait five years.”
Another John Jay student, Derek Bruno, 22, just shrugged when told of the proposed changes. “I don’t care,” he said. “I’ve wanted to be a cop since I was 13.”
Steven Greenhouse and Jennifer Mascia contributed reporting