Assemblyman Vito Lopez just got re-elected to a 14th term in Albany, but he wants to start collecting his state pension right now.
Lopez is one of 10 lawmakers who quietly filed “retirement” papers this month, a scheme that allows some officeholders to keep collecting their regular salaries while collecting their retiree pensions — even though they remain on the job.
For Lopez, that means taking his $92,000 state salary while taking the $88,000 annual pension that he’s entitled to upon retirement.
The controversial move is called “double-dipping” by foes, but it’s all legal, thanks to a loophole that allows legislators who are older than 65 to file as “retired” even though they continue serving in the same office.
Legal, but infuriating, said Dick Dadey of Citizens Union, the good-government group.
“It’s incredulous that legislators can draw two salaries for the same job [as] state workers are being laid off and have no salary,” said Dadey.
Unlike regular jobs, which require you to stop working before you receive your retirement pensions, Albany’s lawmakers can continue to stay on the job, earning their pensions and their taxpayer funded salaries.
Here’s how it works: A re-elected, retirement-age legislator can choose to “retire” on Dec. 31 — the end of his previous term — and then show up for work on Jan. 1 as a newly elected public official.
A 2005 law closed one double-dipping loophole, but the rule is still in effect for elected officials, like Lopez, who entered office before 2005. A bill to close the loophole entirely was introduced in 2008 and again this year, but it has not been passed.
Lopez’s chief-of-staff Debra Feinberg defended her boss’s decision to apply for a pension.
“After 45 years of public service, Assemblyman Lopez chose to apply for his pension after careful consideration of his health status and to do what is best for his family,” said Feinberg.
In a subsequent interview, Lopez, who is suffering from cancer, said that he had to make the pension decision because, “I’m not sure I’m going to live through my next term.”
“I have serious health issues and that was the determining factor,” he said. “People can challenge that, but I have 46 years in the system.”
Lopez’s pension grab raised eyebrows among reformers because it was the third salary-related scandal surrounding the lawmaker this year.
Ridgewood Bushwick dramatically hiked the salaries of its top executives, Angela Battagila and Chris Fisher, who are also Lopez’s girlfriend and campaign treasurer, respectively.
Fisher’s salary nearly tripled to $659,591, from $234,234, while Battaglia’s increased to $329,910, up from $190,609. She also draws another $54,000 as a city planning commissioner, a part-time job.
All of these salary and pension numbers are staggering compared with Bushwick’s median income, which is roughly $40,000, according to 2010 census figures.
Dadey wondered how Lopez and his allies can work in a district where “people really struggle to make ends meet,” while collecting an exorbitant salary.
“How can Lopez be affiliated with Ridgewood Bushwick, which serves people with limited needs, and take this double-dipped salary?” said Dadey. “How can he live with himself?”
This isn’t the first time that Brooklyn lawmakers have been chided over the practice of double-dipping.
Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs (D–Flatbush) has been collecting a $71,000 pension on top of her $104,500 salary since 2008, and defended the legal loophole during her re-election campaign this year.
And Assemblywoman Joan Millman (D–Carroll Gardens) has been taking her school teacher’s pension on top of her $92,000 salary.
©2010 Community Newspaper Group
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