Benefit bonanza: Longtime legislators can reap retirement packages while still in office

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If you want to stump long-standing state legislators, you don’t have to ask them about gay marriage, the economy or mayoral control of city schools.

Just ask them their age.

Then try to find out if they’re going to claim their state employee retirement benefits while still in office, a perfectly legal, but ethically dubious practice conducted by Flatbush Assemblymember Rhoda Jacobs and several other state lawmakers, according to a recently published New York Times article.

A review of borough legislators carried out by this paper showed that not only are state Assembly and Senate members shy about answering this simple question, they’re even more close-mouthed about their ages.

Dyker Heights Assemblymember Peter Abbate, Sunset Park Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, Midwood Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, and Sheepshead Bay State Senator Carl Kruger, did not return repeated calls for a response. We’ll forgive Borough Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind, and Red Hook State Senator Velmanette Montgomery. Both were reportedly on vacation -- Hikind was out of the country -- when we called.

Williamsburg Assemblymember and Kings County Democratic Boss Vito Lopez refused to comment. Thanks to Wikipedia of all places, which indicated that he was born in 1941, we can estimate that he’s between 67 and 68.

Staff members of the above legislators took messages, but would not divulge something as simple as their bosses ages. A handfull, including a longtime staffer for Sen. Montgomery, said that they “did not know” how old the legislator was.

But Albany took the cake when a spokesman for the State Assembly actually said that they didn’t have a list of birth dates for their members, leading us to believe that no one gets a birthday card from Speaker Shelly Silver.

Those that did get back to us said that they wouldn’t opt to apply for retirement benefits if they were still legislating and had reached the magic age of 65.

According to the Times, Jacobs, 72, “retired” last year after 31 years of service, yet remains in office. Currently, she earns $104,500 a year and receives an annual pension of more than $71,000 the Times reported, calling this practice “double dipping.”

When contacted by this paper, Jacob would not comment about her retirement.

“It’s amazing,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research group. “It shows how Albany can be amazingly tone deaf. I think New Yorkers are just flummoxed that some of their legislators can return to office and collect a pension at the same time.”

Horner noted that legislators shoot themselves in the foot by taking their penions while still in office, because the pensions are based on thier salaries, which could increase over time.

“There is some risk for them, but the fact that laws are written this way underscores that Albany doesn’t get it,” he said.

Officials said that a longtime law on the books allowed state legislators could retire at 65 and still serve their district. That law was changed in the 1990s to ensure that no one elected after 1995 could double dip in this fashion.

Jacobs, who took office in 1978, has been representing Brooklynites longer than any other borough state representative save for one -- Williamsburg Assemblyman Joe Lentol, who took office in 1972.

Yet Lentol is not looking to retire.

“I have chosen not to take this option even though, because I am 66 years old and have served as long as I have, it is available to me,” Lentol. “My colleagues who do so are within their rights, however I believe with the current fiscal crisis and renewed scrutiny of this issue that is highly likely that we, in the state legislature, will take another look at the law permitting this practice.”

Park Slope Assemblymember Jim Brennan, 58, agreed, explaining through a spokesman that if the retirement law hadn’t been in the state constitution, it probably would have been removed entirely in the mid-1990s.

“He supported putting an end to the practice back in 1995,” said a spokesman from Brennan’s office.

“I have just about thirty years in state service and I could probably end up with a pretty handsome pension but I think its wrong to double dip and I would have a problem in choosing that option,” said Flatbush Assemblyman Nick Perry, 59. “I believe that when you retire, you retire. There are things that are legal but not right according to their comfort zone.”

“Some people feel quite comfortable about this,” he added.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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