Mayors, county execs lobby in Albany for pension reform

Karen DeWitt / NY Public Radio

Rochester Mayor Tom Richards, Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and mayors and county leaders from around the state came to the state Capitol to support Governor Andrew Cuomo’s push for pension reform, saying they are “crashing and burning” under the rising costs.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who organized the lobbying trip says the issue is very simple- pension payments are driving municipalities to near bankruptcy.

“We really are up against it,” said Bloomberg. “We are going to have fewer services, we are going to have fewer employees, and in some cases we are going to have higher taxes if this continues.”

The Mayor and other city and county leaders from Rochester, Syracuse, Westchester and Suffolk say they’ve begun a bi partisan lobbying effort to back Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to enact a new benefit tier for public workers hired in the future. It would have reduced pension payments and for the first time, the option of a 401k style plan.

The mayors says they planned meetings with several key legislators to hope to convince them to adopt the governor’s plan, though Bloomberg had harsh words for the legislature’s policy on pensions over the years, which he called a “charade”.

“They keep going on and on, having both sides of every single issue,” Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg says when he first took office, annual pension costs were one and half billion dollars a year for the City, now they are eight billion dollars annually.

Rochester Mayor Tom Richards says while his city’s pension payments are much lower than that, proportionately, they are just as devastating to his budget. He says by next year, all of the money collected in city property taxes will go for mandatory school and pension payments.

“We’ll have none left,” said Richards. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

State worker unions have opposed the proposed pension changes,  saying future workers would see their retirement benefits reduced by as much as 40%, or, if they choose 401k’s will be subject to gyrations of the stock market.

Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney says the pension changes, though are not against unions.

“This isn’t anti labor,” Mahoney said.

Mahoney and others say if they have to keep paying ballooning pension costs in the future, they will hurt the labor market even more,  because there will be fewer opportunities for them to hire workers.

“The jobs will be gone, the families will be gone, the businesses will be gone if we don’t do something about it,” Mahoney said.

Governor Cuomo has been saying in recent days that he is “flexible”   on whether the 401k option needs to be included in a pension reform agreement with the legislature.

“It’s not a philosophical debate,” Cuomo said Wednesday. “It’s about saving money.”

Cuomo says if the legislature can come up with an alternative plan that saves the $113 billion dollars that the governor estimates can be saved in future decades, then he’s willing to consider it.

Mayor Bloomberg says he’s not going to “complicate” Cuomo’s efforts by insisting on the 401 k option for the pension reform plan,  but he says defined benefit plans have become largely  unaffordable.

Senate Republicans have said they are open to Cuomo’s pension reform changes, Assembly Democrats have not yet committed to it, and some Democrats oppose the plan.