A recent editorial urging reform of the law that specifies how the Yonkers Fire Fighters Union — as well as others around the state — can spend a 2 percent tax on insurance premiums was on target except for one thing: There is no reason to “cut the union some slack” because it claims ignorance of a 1912 law that says Yonkers can only spend the money on indigent and disabled firefighters.
It appears the union was well aware of the law all along; as recently as 1981 it went to court in an attempt to stop the fire officers union from getting a share of the funds. This followed a 1962 change in the law, requested by the union, to reaffirm the union’s control over the funds. In both instances, it was made clear that the Yonkers 2 percent funds can only be spent for indigent or disabled firefighters. Far from being a musty, century-old statute unknown to the union, it turns out the union has twice turned to the courts and state Legislature to secure its exclusive hold on the funds.
Now, taxpayers face two questions:
• What will happen to the more than $2 million in tax proceeds the union has stockpiled since 2016 when the State Comptroller began an audit, yet to be completed, of the funds?
• Will the governor sign a law passed on the last day of the state Legislature’s session that would legitimize the union’s practice of spending the money as it pleases?
Yonkers residents and businesses pay this 2 percent tax every time they purchase a policy from an insurance company whose headquarters are out of state. It can amount to more than $500,000 a year. The only accountability has been a one-page form filed by the union. The latest one available, from 2012, says the union spent nearly $64,000 on salaries and administration. Whose salaries, and what administration? They spent more than $11,000 on coffee, and approximately $8,000 on public relations and newsletters. Were these political expenditures? If so, using taxpayer dollars for them is not appropriate. There is no detail to explain these expenditures, nor any annual audits. Another $43,000 is ascribed to “good and welfare” with no additional explanation. What we don’t see is a single dollar spent on indigent or disabled firefighters.
The $2 million in taxpayer funds that have accumulated since the comptroller began examining the union’s improper expenditures need to go back to the taxpayer. Cutting the union some slack just rewards improper behavior.
Just as important, future tax proceeds should be paid to the City of Yonkers, so that we can use that money for actual fire safety expenses.
The Yonkers union says it wants to be able to use the taxpayer funds as many other departments around the state do — to pay the portion of medical co-pays that are not already covered by health insurance, for gym memberships, prescription co-pays, and similar expenses. But the union’s record in this regard is suspect — beginning with the fact that they spend so much on un-itemized administrative expenses that have nothing to do with these benefits, not to mention the spending on public relations, dinner dances, etc.
A 2013 audit of another benefit fund administered by the Yonkers Fire Fighters Union — a fund 100 percent paid by the city to the tune of $800,000 per year and meant to provide specified health and welfare benefits — found missing records, evidence of improper payments, and a lack of basic accounting.
These are taxpayer dollars. If anything, we need to cut the taxpayer some slack. The way to do that is for the state comptroller to freeze the accumulated funds and for the state Legislature to pass real reforms that allocate these dollars to benefit the public in the form of fire safety.
Mike Spano is City of Yonkers Mayor.