We the People: Easing into change means keeping what works

New York City is a great city and a safe city. Is the Big Apple perfect? It is far from perfect but it should not be referred to as the Big Onion or have pop singers warn audiences to ignore its maggots.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, a home-grown hero, will step down after nearly 12 years as police commissioner of the NYPD, the largest police force in the nation. His legacy is one of increased safety for all citizens with the murder rate declining from more than 2,200 murders in 1990 to perhaps fewer than 300 murders by this year’s end.

This reduction in violent crime is not a one-man show. The mayor, the police officers, the commanders, law enforcement visionaries like Jack Maple as well as others made this miracle happen. However, Ray Kelly was at the helm during the smooth sailing and the tempests.

Chief Phillip Banks from the NYPD and Chief Bill Bratton from the LAPD are rumored to be the top contenders to replace Kelly. Mayor-elect de Blasio is definitely inheriting some problems in January but he also is being handed treasures. He will have to handle both with equal care.

The new mayor was elected on a movement for change but he must make changes carefully and keep things that do work for the city. He will have a Herculean task of negotiating all the expired public employee contracts without bankrupting the city.

He can change the policies of the NYPD without trying to eliminate a police officer’s power to stop a suspicious person or frisk a potentially dangerous one under the right circumstances.

Our mayor and our governor must spend time reining in out-of-control public spending. A recent look at overtime totals for public employees reminds us that it is the responsibility of managers to lead and control spending from the top on down.

In 2012, a New York State corrections officer earned $104,102 in overtime above his $90,243 annual salary! The state is on a pace to spend $600 million in OT this year while it spent a record $462 million on OT in 2012.

The problem is compounded because these employees will receive pensions based on these annual salaries. OT will inflate the pension so that they will take home more annual compensation in retirement than they could have earned as an employee. If we don’t do anything about it we won’t be able to afford public employees in the future because we have to pay inflated pensions to retired ones.

This retirement situation is described as a pension time bomb by the Empire Center organization. The money the state must put aside for pensions is based on an unreliable rate of return so if it is underfunded (it is), then the pension system will cause bad fiscal problems in the future (it will).

There are eight different retirement pension systems in New York State and there are six tiers of benefits for state retirees. There are many special carved out benefits for every tier so that it is hard to plan to make sure future pension payments can be made.

The city has its own system too. In New York City, skyrocketing pension costs have consumed more than 75 percent of Mayor Bloomberg’s record property tax increase in 2002. We cannot collect tax just to pay pensions. Our leaders have a responsibility to the workers and to the people to maintain a fair and sustainable system.

Unfortunately, when hard financial decisions must be made, the state and the city just borrow money. This is another hidden danger for the taxpayers of New York. In 2013, New York State debt eclipsed the $63 billion mark, which is more than $3,000 for every man, woman and child.

Let us change what we must and practice patience for changes at the right time. Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo must adopt new fiscal policies with spending limits so we can afford public employees and services in the future.

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