Yonkers Firefighters Memorial
As a firefighter for the City of Yonkers, I feel a need to set the record straight. There has been a lot of talk in the press and from political hopefuls about payroll abuse of civil service workers, and “pension padding”. Sensational headlines like to point out civil service personnel, particularly emergency service workers, earning high salaries. If a firefighter or police officer earns well above their base salaries, you can be sure of one thing – he or she worked their rear end off doing it. No one is being paid any money that they are not earning. Overtime is necessary because there are not enough regularly scheduled members to do the work that needs to be done to keep the public safe. How overtime is dispersed among members of the department is of no cost to the City. When overtime must be worked, it is of no financial consequence when some members work more overtime than others. Whether all overtime is worked by one individual, or it is spread out among the entire department, the net cost to the city remains the same. Most often, those members who are pointed out as being paid high salaries are willing to work whenever they are needed, and do whatever work needs to be done. They spend countless hours away from their families, working graveyard shifts on holidays, or taking traffic details that no one else wants, just to try and make a better life. Their reward for such diligence is being vilified in the press and by politicians for abusing the system.
As for “pension padding”, the first question that must be asked is, what is pension padding? Does this term imply anything illegal or unethical? If so, I can unequivocally state that there is no pension padding going on among City of Yonkers emergency service personnel. If the term refers to retiring members working within the parameters established by state civil service laws to maximize the benefits that they have worked and laid their lives on the line for, than yes, we are guilty of that. First of all, it must be stated that when a member retires, the City’s financial obligations to that member cease. The New York State Police and Fire Retirement System pays members’ pensions, based on formulas established and negotiated years ago. According to the Office of the New York State Comptroller, which oversees the pension fund, “the fund remains one of the strongest, most secure public pension plans in the United States”. The amount of money the City pays into the pension system per member each year varies according to the general economic climate. The City likes to point out that the contribution rate has been above 15% in recent years, and is expected to go up more in years to come. What they fail to mention is that for 5 years straight from 1999 to 2003, they contributed virtually nothing due to booming economic times.
What about the money that was saved during those banner years? Why was none of it put aside for when the boom ended? Labor takes the blame for high expenses in bad years, yet management shares none of the blame for their fiscal mismanagement during good years.
The bottom line is that the City of Yonkers has some of the most dedicated, hard working firefighters and police officers in the country, and all we are asking for is what has been promised us since the day we were sworn in – the opportunity to work hard for fair compensation, and a decent pension after our careers are over. The New York State Police and Fire Retirement System is different than the retirement system for other state workers, for good reason. The average life expectancy of firefighters and police officers has been established as 9 years shorter than that of the general population. This is due to the stress of the job, as well as the toxic environment in which members often find themselves working. One would think, after enjoying the safety and freedom afforded to its residents at such a great cost, the City would expect and indeed encourage its public safety officers to retire with a decent pension. At the very least, we should not be made out to be villains and ripped apart in the press for trying to better ourselves while doing our jobs protecting the city.
Roger Vitolo is a Fire Chief with the Yonkers Fire Department.