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Editorial: Adjustments feasible in OT-pension rule

Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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Should police officers who are essentially working overtime on behalf of the city have the hours credited toward their pensions, even if the city is being compensated by a private entity?

On the surface, it appears that they should.

But is the state comptroller's office clear that those hours are not applicable to pensions? It is.

So Schenectady officials should start conforming to what the existing rule is, then, if they want to, work to change the law to what they think it should be.

The question arises from a practice in which cities like Schenectady allow their police officers to collect extra pay for working security details at public events, such as traffic control at a marathon or crowd control at a large downtown festival. The event organizer requests a police presence and then compensates the city for the officers' time, so the taxpayers aren't out any money for the hours.

If the crowd gets out of control or if traffic is impeding runners, these officers are expected to serve and act under the city's authority as police officers. The fact that the host organizer is compensating the city is what allows the city to afford the extra police presence.

But the comptroller's office says the pay for these private events can't be applied toward the officers' pensions. There's a good reason for this.

Police departments have often used this policy of paying overtime for special events to bump up an officer's pension prior to retirement. Pensions are determined, in part, by an individual's highest annual pay for a predetermined number of years. It's easy to see how an officer, or his bosses, could exploit the system — at taxpayers' expense — to pad his pension artificially by working a lot of extra overtime in those qualifying years.

With state pensions bankrupting New York's communities, any loopholes the state can close, it should.

But this situation isn't cut-and-dried like other pension-padding schemes, where sick days and vacation time are exploited and applied to pension eligibility, or where overtime is obviously being awarded for the sole purpose of bumping retirement benefits. These officers aren’t Paul Blart: Mall Cop. They’re actually working for their money in legitimate police roles. Or at least they should be.

The state could amend the law to allow officers to apply the overtime from outside work to their pensions. But that could get out of control very quickly.

To prevent abuses, the state could limit the hours of privately compensated overtime that could be applied, or not allow the overtime to be used in eligibility years. Or it could require private vendors to offset the cost of the pensions. But that could make the cost of hiring the officers prohibitive.

Cities could simply stop the practice of hiring out officers altogether, like Bethlehem just did. If the St. Anthony's Festa wants security, it can hire off-duty officers itself. But then, the city might be forced to bring in extra officers, uncompensated by event organizers, to handle situations arising from the event.

For now, it appears, the law is clear and Schenectady needs to stop applying the compensated money to pensions.

But that could be changed.

Maybe it should be.

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July 30, 2014
9:29 a.m.
+0 votes
mezz3131 says...

I dont think anyone realizes the complexity of the whole issue. First, the officers used to be hired directly by the establishments but the city decided that it wanted all details to go through them, at a higher cost to the establishment I might add. This was done for several reasons, from control to liability, etc. The officer doesn't get paid any more more but it is nearly twice the cost per hour for whomever needs them. Second, officers sign up for overtime and are sometimes assigned to the detail and some times the shift. You don't necessarily sign up for the detail or the street and get the assignment of your choice. Therefore, who is it up to, to decide if you are working towards your pension or not? Third, if you are assigned to work a block party or other detail, you could be called away if there is an emergency to assist the patrols or another function. When this happens, the financial burden is supposed to come off the establishment but who knows if it does? It was never broke. They tried to fix it. Now it is broken....

July 30, 2014
8:53 p.m.
+0 votes
birmy says...

Schenectady's chances of changing the law when it appears most municipalities are already in compliance appears to be a tough climb. The best they could hope for in my opinion is that retired officers do not get their pension amount lessened in addition to paying back any monies. Maybe there is a statute of limitations with regard to this? The harsh reality is the comptroller's interpretation of the law as well as the fact that a private establishment is paying wages and NOT future pension obligations when hiring a police officer. Those 2 things would appear hard to overcome. But I'm not a lawyer.

August 1, 2014
1:33 a.m.
+0 votes
kopacham says...

I wonder if or how Schenectady will go back into its records and straiten out the pension thing and claw back the money paid through city residents taxes that could be used for better purposes (or a tax decrease).

August 1, 2014
7:21 a.m.
+0 votes
wmarincic says...

A cop is a cop if he is working a block party or a shift. He could be injured or worse at either, but with the amount of people and in many cases alcohol being served, I would say that there is a high potential of violence at these festivals. Should an officer not be compensated for risking their lives. Police are working 24/7 even off duty. Many departments mandate that they carry a weapon off duty. Stop the crap, there are only a few of these events each year and we are talking minimal money in the pension. This is just more police bashing in my opinion since the Gazette feels the need to write countless articles on the same junk. I think the Gazette should start investigating themselves, if what I hear is true.


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