May 5th, 2021
TimesUnion.com | Public pension 'millionaires' club
ALBANY — A fiscally conservative advocacy group from the Midwest arrived in Albany to propose an intriguing math experiment: If retired public employees maxed out their pensions by retiring early at age 55 and living to the ripe old age of 85, who would get the biggest hypothetical payout?
Philip W. Wood, a retired SUNY vice chancellor for capital facilities, leads the pack in this latest iteration of the ongoing debate over public pension costs. According to Taxpayers United of America, Wood’s $186,295 annual pension would be worth about $6.9 million over 30 years. The sum assumes that he retired at age 55 and lived to be 85 years old.
It would put him at the top of the group’s list of 100 top state pensioners.
While Wood’s potential payout sounds like a lot, it pales in comparison to the nearly $11.9 million estimated pension payout for James Hunderfund, the retired school superintendent in Commack, Suffolk County. Hunderfund, who collects $316,245 annually from the teachers retirement system, has been cited before as a poster child for the excesses of New York’s public sector pensions.
Taxpayers United isn’t saying Philip and Hunderfund will collect $6.9 million and $11.9 million worth of pension checks, although their current annual payments are real. The payout is an estimate based on an actuarial model, a prediction of how much money 30 years’ worth of pension benefits would be for these individuals.
The analysis also includes the 1.5 percent annual escalator in many public pensions. Not every public employee leaves their job at age 55, nor do they all live to be 85 — factors that would reduce the final payout, in many cases significantly.
But Taxpayers United Vice President Christina Tobin said the figures illustrate how costly some public sector pensions can be.
Less than a week after lawmakers approved Gov. Andrew Cuomo‘s Tier VI pension plan, which reduces costs for future public employees, this Illinois-based group was in Albany warning that the changes were inadequate and that New York, like other states, will have great difficulty meeting its pension obligations in future years.
“This pension reform doesn’t go far enough,” said Rae Ann McNeilly, the group’s director of outreach.
“If we don’t have (pension) reform, the checks will stop coming,” said Tobin.
This is the organization’s first foray into New York. The group was created in 1976 by Christina Tobin’s father, longtime anti-tax activist Jim Tobin, who in 2002 ran for Illinois lieutenant governor on the Libertarian line. The group has a long history of tangling with the public sector in that state: Last year, it went to court in an unsuccessful effort to block a near-doubling of tolls on Illinois highways.
Now, sparked by national concern over future public pension costs and aided by the ease of getting payroll data online, the group wants to expand to other states. Tobin and McNeilly are currently traveling through Pennsylvania and New York recruiting new members. Eventually, they want volunteers in all 50 states to help work on a website that would list public payroll data across the country.
The move comes as spending watchdogs have posted public payrolls online in several states, sparking debate over the salaries and pension costs that come with public sector jobs.
McNeilly said the actual annual pensions listed in their report came from the website of the New York-based Empire Center, another fiscally conservative group, which in turn are based on records at the state Comptroller’s Office.
Unions are seething over the creation of Tier VI, which they say was linked — in typical Capitol fashion — to an unrelated deal on gerrymandered legislative districts and other items.
The leader of a think tank critical of Tier VI noted that Taxpayers United’s project appears to be little more than a math exercise that focuses on the highest earners.
“This doesn’t tell you anything about the overall affordability of the system,” said Frank Mauro, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, which contends that rising pension costs borne by taxpayers are the result of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown that depleted the state’s pension funds.
Mauro said the group is “trying to use an egregious example to do things that hurt middle-income workers.”
Wood, who could not be reached, is listed as leaving state service in December 2010. SUNY spokesman David Henahan noted that Wood worked for 40 years in public service, starting with a job at the Rensselaer County nursing home at age 16. He also started in the old Tier I plan, which was eventually phased out due to the cost.
Wood was appointed general manager of the State University Construction Fund in 2003 and took on additional responsibilities as SUNY vice chancellor for capital facilities in 2007, Henahan said in a statement.