Bonuses to Police Officers and Firefighters: An Unaffordable Perk

The unions representing rank-and-file firefighters and police officers are none too pleased with Mayor Bloomberg these days, and perhaps that’s to be expected. The mayor wants to eliminate a $12,000 bonus paid out to about 50,000 retirees every year at the end of December. Union leaders Stephen Cassidy of the Uniformed Firefighters Association and Patrick Lynch of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association held a news conference to condemn the plan and Mr. Bloomberg’s characterization of the payment as a “Christmas bonus.” During the news conference, they called Mr. Bloomberg a liar. Repeatedly.

That’s no way to win a PR war.

As other leaders of public-employee unions are beginning to admit–privately, of course–the tide of public opinion has turned against the excessive perks and benefits paid out to government workers, including cops and firefighters. That doesn’t mean the sacrifices of cops and firefighters are any less appreciated, or that their courage is any less deserving of our admiration. But some benefits are simply unaffordable and in desperate need of reform.

Mr. Cassidy and Mr. Lynch insist that the $12,000 payment is a fairly won benefit given to retirees in return for other concessions regarding the investment of pension funds. That may be true, but the concession was granted in 1968. Times have changed, and so has the city’s ability to fund basic benefits and pensions, never mind bonus payments, whatever they might be called.

Perhaps Mr. Bloomberg should stop calling them “Christmas bonuses” and simply call them what they inarguably are–unaffordable perks given to retirees on top of their pensions. Mr. Cassidy and Mr. Lynch would then have to stop calling the mayor a liar–a silly charge, in any case–and instead focus on defending the payment itself. It would be a hard case to make, for taxpayers are growing weary of footing the bill for pension deals made nearly a half-century ago.

Police officers and firefighters are courageous figures. The city’s commitment to funding a dignified retirement for these heroes remains strong. But City Hall is broke, and so is Albany. The time has come to reconsider how best to help city workers in their retirement while keeping faith with taxpayers as well.