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.