The PBA and Bloomberg’s Folly: The Other Shoe Drops

Just before his re-election, Mayor Bloomberg and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association reached a contract in arbitration that offset, in part, the soaring cost of police pensions by reducing the pay of new officers by 40%, to just $25,100. Similar contracts were reached with other unions, which then did not oppose the Mayor’s re-election. Those unaware of the history of such things might have assumed that the Mayor had imposed harsh terms. In fact, however, public employee unions always try to get better pensions, and to increase the pay of those about to retire upon which the pensions are based. And they always, time after time, eagerly agree to lower pay and benefits for future employees — the very employees the government will need to hire in the future to continue to provide services — so the new hires can be held hostage later. One might have thought that the 40% cut in starting pay for police and fire, and 15% cut in pay for most other titles, was a union proposal in exchange for higher benefits for those with seniority. But in fact it was the Mayor’s idea and the unions — “please don’t throw me in that briar patch” — gladly accepted.

Sure enough, the City of New York is having trouble recruiting police officers. And in a February 15th article in the Daily News the other shoe dropped — the head of the PBA made it clear that the union is opposed to higher pay for new recruits unless a big increase (perhaps 40%?) is provided in the final salary of those about to retire as well. Patrick Lynch must be a very disciplined man to have been able to get through writing that essay while laughing his head off.

Disingenuously, Lynch claims that having a higher final salary will keep existing officers on the force. The most lucrative thing about being a police officer, however, is that you can turn the existing $59,000 salary (plus whatever inflation adjustment the police are due) into almost $30,000 in pay for nothing, and then go out and get another job on top of that. And the former officer can go for maximum cash pay in the new job, because health benefits and retirement benefits are already covered by the City of New York. Raising the pay to stay means, necessarily, raising the bonus for leaving. And while some officers do leave, mid-career, for better paying police departments in the suburbs, pay isn’t the only reason. Doing so also reduces their commute.

For the sake of argument, however, I’ll take Lynch at his word, and agree that the police should be paid more — if they spend less time being paid to do nothing in retirement. This could be arranged if pay increased by, say, $2,000 per year for each year on the force beyond the 20th. Of course, the older officers would have to prove they could still do the job, by passing the physical tests in that year and every few years thereafter. Perhaps those tests could even be a little easier for, say, detectives, or even for other officers whose experience might offset lost strength and speed.

Since the pay would rise only beyond the point where an officer was eligible to retire, what the city lost in higher pay and higher pay per year in retirement might be offset by fewer years in retirement. This would reduce the number of years receiving retiree health benefits before Medicare kicks in to share the load. The pensions would pay more per year, but perhaps for fewer years. I say perhaps because the Officer Donut who can’t pass the physical test at 43, or is looking forward to retiring to a couch at that age, might not live past 70. Meanwhile Officer Jack LaLane, still passing the physical and chasing down the bad guys at 55 or even 60, might live to 100. But heck, in that case the money would be well earned.

If pains me to suggest yet another pension enhancement, and I’m terrified of the precedent, but there is something else I might suggest. Currently New York’s public employees are barred from both collecting a pension and working in another government job, and for good reason. But I might be willing to accept allowing retired officers to collect if they were to work in a new title as a variant on subway Station Agents. Now that ticket machines have eliminated the need to sell tokens, there isn’t much call for Station Agents in booths, but the Transit Workers Union has resisted having its Station Agents leave the booths and move around the stations, as the MTA wants. They have a case. The title is heavily female, and hard to argue that for a 45 year old woman walking around, say, the isolated Atlantic Avenue station on the L line, located in a no-man’s land between East New York and Brownsville, which averages under 600 customers per day, at 3:00 am, is the same job as sitting behind bullet proof glass and selling tokens.

Perhaps a better paid “Station Guard” position could be created, open to exclusive former police officers, to patrol stations in the evening and overnight hours in lieu of a station agent in the booth. In outer-borough stations that are less heavily traveled outside the morning rush, perhaps Station Guards could be substituted in the afternoon as well. An experienced officer might deter graffiti and vandalism, and perhaps worse, in addition to giving directions and opening the gate for strollers.

There is, however, no reason for the PBA to have any interest in any of those “you do for me, I do for you” suggestions. Assume that the union’s job is to ruthlessly pursue unenlightened, short term self interest without consideration of other needs or concern about a possible future backlash (though the PBA might want to ask Local 1199 about the backlash). In that case, the PBA has won the contract negotiation championship on a knockout, and is under no obligation to allow a chump challenger back in the ring.

Instead, as the city twists in the wind, they can have a laugh at my expense. I think Mayor Bloomberg has been an excellent Mayor in many ways, who has done many good things for the city, overall. But I nonetheless voted against him in 2005 after having voted for him in 2001 based on three really bad decisions, of which agreeing to yet another round of “screw the newbie, flee to Florida” contracts was the worst. That makes me the sucker. As I wrote here, if there is one mistake I wouldn’t have expected an ex-CEO to make, that is it.