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Cop Out

New York Post May 5, 2013
Urban PolicyNYCOther
Public SectorOther

New York pays more police in retirement than to patrol our streets — yet pols do nothing to address our skyrocketing pension costs

Last week, Mayor Bloomberg scolded the NYPD’s critics, from The New York Times to the Democratic mayoral candidates. The mayor said that "the attacks most often come from those who play no constructive role in keeping our city safe."

The mayor is right — but there’s another threat to the NYPD’s crime-fighting success, too. We now have more retired cops than active police officers, and the multibillion-dollar bill for their pension and health benefits harms our ability to hire new ones.

In December 2001, a month before Bloomberg took office, New York had 39,297 cops. Today, the city has 34,510 to protect us — and by the time the mayor leaves office in eight months, we’ll have 34,483 — a cut of nearly 5,000 pairs of eyes.

Yet spending has increased. During Bloomberg’s final year, city will spend $8.7 billion on the police department, nearly double the 2002 figure and more than three times the rate of inflation.

How’s that possible? It’s mostly because pension and health benefits cost ever more. The $4.3 billion taxpayers will spend on salaries and wages for police officers (and a contingent of administrative staff) this year has only just kept up with inflation over the Bloomberg years. By contrast, the pension budget has quadrupled — from $1.1 to $4.4 billion.

We’ll spend more on cops’ benefits this year than on salaries. That’s partly because as of 2010 (the last number for which the secretive police pension fund has released details), the city was supporting 44,634 retired cops, up from 34,245 when the mayor took office.

Benefit spending has taken a toll on other city services, too. In 2002, the city had 7,821 uniformed sanitation workers, for example. Next year, it will have 7,271.

But the risk for the Police Department is particularly potent. Before his death, former mayor Ed Koch reminisced that he had a difficult time controlling crime in the mid-’80s because the city just couldn’t instantly add officers after the brutal cutbacks of the previous decade. The Police Department must find, recruit, vet and train officers; it doesn’t happen overnight.

If crime rises or if the next police commissioner can’t manage the department as effectively as Ray Kelly has done, the next mayor will be in the same position.

The Boston bombings were a reminder that cops must not only solve crimes and answer residents’ complaints, but also prevent terror. In the days after the bombings, theatergoers were comforted to see uniformed officers outside most theaters — scanning the waiting crowds for suspicious people or packages.

Mayor Bloomberg fancies himself a national leader, and he’s done a great job of changing the national debate on gun control.

On the issue of pension and health benefits suffocating other types of government spending, though, the mayor has been a national leader — in the wrong direction.

In state and local governments across the country, governments are budgeting more dollars but deciding less, because employee benefits are on autopilot.

Today, pensions make up, on average, 4.6% of state and local revenues.

However, if governments earn only 4% return on their investments over the next decade, pension contributions will rise in 10 years to 14.5% of revenue, becoming the third-largest slice of many state budgets, after schools and health care.

They’re already there in New York. The $8.2 billion the city will spend on pension benefits next year is 16% of our budget (not including state and federal grants that go to stuff like Medicaid, spending we can’t use for pensions).

Add in health costs for public workers and retirees, and New York is spending $17 billion — or 34% of the budget. That’s double the share it was when Bloomberg took office.

As Bloomberg himself has noted, "We now spend more on pensions than we do on the operating budget of the NYPD, the Fire Department and the Sanitation Department combined." For the 2013 budget, he said, "every penny in personal income tax we collect will go to cover our pension bill."

Bloomberg’s failure to control these costs is the weakest part of his legacy. Council Speaker Christine Quinn, meanwhile, signed off on Bloomberg’s budgets — without raising the alarm on these soaring costs. Former Comptroller Bill Thompson wants to hire 1,000 more cops — but with what money?

With stop and frisk, the Democratic candidates say crazy things — with Comptroller John Liu, for example, saying he’d simply abolish the practice — leaving cops, apparently, to wonder whether the person they’ve just arrested is packing heat.

But with the cost of police pension and benefit costs, the silence is even crazier.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post