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New Rules Mean Less Pension Money for Officer Who Survived Arson Fire

By Murray Weiss | April 24, 2014 9:12am | Updated on April 24, 2014 9:28am
 Officer Rosa Rodriguez was injured in an arson fire in Coney Island earlier this month.
Officer Rosa Rodriguez was injured in an arson fire in Coney Island earlier this month.
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BROOKLYN — The NYPD officer critically injured in a fire that claimed her partner’s life will be the first in city history to receive a reduced disability pension if she cannot return to work, DNAinfo New York has learned.

A pension change enacted five years ago says police officers and firefighters hired after July 2009 who become disabled in the line of duty are no longer eligible for the traditional tax-free pension calculated at three-quarters of their final year's salary.

Instead, these newer members of New York’s Finest and Bravest will receive pensions equal to 50 percent of their final year’s salary.

And officials say that pension will be further cut by an amount equivalent to half of any Social Security disability payments they receive.

Officer Rosa Rodriguez, a 36-year-old mother of four, joined the force in July 2010 and is making $53,270 a year.

Had she joined the NYPD a year earlier, she would be eligible for $39,952 a year in tax-free disability pay — plus any Social Security disability funds or traditional Social Security retirement payments she would receive. 

That's another potential $1,800-a-month, or another $21,600 annually, for combined disability pay of $61,552.

Under the new disability structure, Rodriguez would receive 50 percent of her last year's salary — or about $26,600 a year, also tax-free.

But that city payment would be reduced by 50 cents for every $1 she receives from Social Security payments tied to her NYPD job, meaning the total top-out of city and federal money would be $37,400.

“It is immoral to expect someone to risk their life for the good of the city and not be prepared to care for them and their family should some catastrophic harm befall them in the line of duty,” Patrick Lynch, the president of the city's police union, told "On The Inside."

"Society has always had a compact with first responders — in exchange for going in harm's way, society will provide for our family if we are killed or permanently disabled," added Roy Richter, president of the Captains Endowment Association.

"This is an inequity that created two classes of first responders," said Michael Palladino, the detectives' president.

Officer Rodriguez remains in critical condition at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, where she was taken after she and her partner Dennis Guerra were overcome by smoke two weeks ago while responding to a fire inside a Coney Island housing project.

Guerra, a seven-year veteran and father of two, succumbed to his injuries last week.

Police Commissioner William Bratton posthumously promoted Guerra to first grade detective, the rank Guerra's father held.

The promotion symbolically memorialized his ultimate sacrifice on behalf of New Yorkers, but it also meant a financial boost for his wife and children because their benefits will be based on that higher detective salary.

Depending on the extent of Rodriguez's recovery, Bratton can find ways to keep her on the payroll in various capacities. But given the severity of her injuries, insiders at least for now believe she likely will be forced to retire.

In January 2009, then-Gov. David Paterson was pushing to reduce labor pension costs throughout the state, and he decided to veto a bill that routinely extended pension coverage for police and firefighters.

Since 1976, governors signed off every two years on a provision that retained benefits for newly hired police officers and firefighters, protecting them from less generous pension plans for other recently hired state and local employees. The move did not effect any other city employees.

“This bill has been extended routinely since its initial enactment,” Paterson wrote in his veto message. “But these are not routine times. The state and localities are hemorrhaging revenue at an alarming rate due to the recession and financial crisis.”

With the stroke of a pen, Paterson placed all new hires after July 2009 into a new employee “tier” that altered pension benefits and costs, including the diminished disability payout.

Since then no police or firefighter has been impacted by the change.

The veto shocked police and firefighter union officials across the state. Many believed Paterson and state lawmakers did not realize its broad impact.

“We must have legislation to correct this gross inequity that occurred under the cover of night ... without any consideration for the serious harm it does to first responders," Lynch said.

"The disability feature of the new pension plan betrays the sacrifice of our first responders," Richter added, "and the apathy of our elected leaders who fail to correct this wrong is disgusting."