Fulton Mayor Ron Woodward has short, sharp advice for Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and his investigation of alleged “pension padding” that puts pressure on local governments to solve the problem:
“Change the damn law.”
Cuomo last week announced he was widening his office’s probe into allegations that public employees across the state work unusually high amounts of overtime in the final years of their employment in order to jack up their state taxpayer-funded pensions.
The Attorney General asked for payroll and pension data from several dozen local governments, including Fulton’s.
Cuomo offered advice to local governments to reduce the cost of overtime:
- Cap the amount of overtime a worker can receive;
- Stop giving overtime on the basis of seniority;
- Have a single person or office responsible for assigning overtime;
- Change work schedules and, if necessary, hire a full-time worker.
Woodward, however, thinks Cuomo is pushing on the wrong end of the system.
He says the problem is the law governing retirements. It allows a worker to earn as much as 20% of his base salary in overtime in the years that are used to compute the worker’s pension.
“The way to fix it lies in the people who created it,” Woodward said. “If [the Legislature] didn’t want that to happen, why did [they] make it so they could do it? Why say you can make 20% more? That’s an invitation.”
Fulton spends a lot of money on overtime, almost all of it in the police and fire departments.
The fire department’s union contract contains a mandatory minimum staffing clause. That means that when a firefighter is sick or out on a long term disability or taking a vacation day, another firefighter must be brought in on overtime to replace him. A firefighter’s workday is 24 hours long, meaning one day of filling in results in 24 hours of overtime. Firefighters also receive what are called Kelly Days, which is a day off in addition to regular time off that is given to avoid working illegal amounts of overtime.
The police department’s overtime budget is about $370,000 for 2010. But much of the department’s overtime is paid for by outside agencies. Special patrols, such as STOP-DWI and aggressive driving, are usually paid for from state and federal grant funds. And more than $80,000 in overtime is paid for by the state Unified Courts System, for the officer who provides court security at Fulton City Court.
There is also a minimum staffing requirement in the police department.
The minimum staffing requirement was negotiated into city union contracts in the 1980s. Woodward believes the city stands little chance of being able to get the requirement out of its contracts, saying that the system of arbitration “almost guarantees you’re not gonna win” if you’re the employer.
So, about Cuomo’s suggestions:
- Cap overtime per employee? “So you’re in the middle of a murder investigation and you say [to the investigator in charge of the case], the overtime’s up, call the patrolman and have him take over?”
- Stop giving overtime by seniority? Centralize overtime? The city already does most of that.
- Change schedules? Can’t. See the contract. Hire another worker? That’s just one more pension to pay.
“He’s focusing on the retirement issue because he’s running for Governor,” Woodward said of Cuomo. “The issue didn’t start last week.”
If Cuomo wants real change, Woodward said, he’ll push the Legislature to change the law to base pensions only on a worker’s base salary. He doesn’t think that’s going to happen. “All they’re asking us to do is give something up and not do their jobs.”