NEW YORK CITY — Former Gov. David Paterson believes an NYPD officer injured in an arson fire should be exempted from getting a reduced disability pension under a law he enacted, DNAinfo New York has learned.
Officer Rosa Rodriguez, 36, a mother of four, was critically injured in a Brooklyn blaze that killed her partner, Dennis Guerra, in a Coney Island housing project on April 6.
Because Rodriguez was hired after July 2009, when the new pension law went into effect, she'll be the first police officer in the city to receive a reduced disability pension if she's unable to return to work, “On The Inside” reported exclusively April 24.
Paterson told DNAinfo he would support any new legislation that would reverse this pension inequity and he called upon state lawmakers to take “the humanitarian step for a woman who nearly gave her life for her city.”
Citing “On The Inside,” James urged Cuomo and state lawmakers to swiftly pass “a special act” providing Rodriguez with benefits “she would have been entitled to if she had been hired prior to July 2009.”
Rodriguez is scheduled to be released as early as Monday from New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
In an interview, Paterson recalled that he was faced with the worst recession in a century in 2009 and that virtually every state was facing extreme financial hardship.
Since 1976, every governor had 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 municipal employees.
But Paterson said he took the difficult step of vetoing the bill because he “was seeking discipline and wanted to get all the parties to negotiate."
His move created a new “tier” of police and firefighters who, if disabled in the line of duty, were no longer entitled to a traditional tax-free pension calculated on three-quarters of their final year’s salary.
Instead, they would receive only half of their final year’s salary and it would be further reduced by 50 percent of the amount of any Social Security disability benefits.
Paterson said he knew that this “theoretical” aspect of the labor contracts would one day become reality, but he would make the same decision again given the circumstances facing the state at the time.
"Too many elected leaders are afraid to do what's right just because there may be some issue down the road," Paterson said. “But now that this reality is here, I think with Officer Rodriguez they can break a rule to reflect her bravery... and then vote to change that rule.”
In her letter to Cuomo, James appealed to Albany to make that change.
"She was hired in July 2010 and currently earns $53,270 a year," James wrote. "If she had joined the Department one year earlier, she would have been eligible to earn $39,952 a year in tax-free disability pay plus Social Security disability funds.
“Because of the 2009 changes, Ms. Rodriguez will only be eligible to receive about $26,600 a year." Combined with deducted Social Security benefits, "she will be limited to make about $37,400,” James wrote.
Cuomo's office has not returned multiple calls seeking comment.
Similar requests were made of City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, but she too has not commented.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he was only focused on Rodriguez’s recovery.
“First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers are with officer Rodriguez and her family,” the mayor said through spokesman Phil Walzak. “We are all focused on what we can do to help her make a full and speedy recovery.”
That sentiment was echoed by Police Commissioner William Bratton, who also declined to weigh in on the pension issue.
Depending on Rodriguez’s recovery, Bratton can find ways to keep her on the payroll in various capacities, but given the severity of her injuries she will likely be forced to retire.
Police union officials have blasted the pay disparity, saying it breaches an unwritten covenant between the public and first responders permanently injured in the line of duty and creates a sub-class of police and firefighters.
Patrick Lynch, the city's police officers union president, said the creation of two tiers of officers "broke the social contract between police officers and the public that allowed officers in good conscience to risk our lives knowing that we would be adequately cared for if injured.
"Tragically, we now have a police officer who is seriously injured and may suffer from the unjust reduction in disability coverage."
He said he welcomed Paterson's new support "on this critical issue" and hopes the ex-governor will personally share his view with "the state Legislature and Gov. Cuomo so that when our legislation is presented, they will fully understand the urgent need."