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On Board: Hevesi scandal reveals public pension largesse

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a self-made billionaire and he created his own wealth with smart investments and shrewd entrepreneurial skills - which is the American way. But Mr. Hevesi is no Bloomberg. He is a public official - or "public servant," as he likes to be called, and as state controller he was responsible for the oversight of the state's pension funds and ensuring that all state spending is properly executed, appropriately documented, and diligently disclosed in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles. In Mr. Hevesi's "Limogate Reality TV Show," he has failed us on every one of those counts. When his hand was caught in the cookie jar, he ponied up a reimbursement to the state that fell 60 percent short or more than $200,000 of what the state's final assessment was for the personal use of cars and chauffeurs by his wife. This isn't small potatoes, and saying, "They all do it" doesn't make it right or justify it in any way. And by the way, they don't all do it. I may be a critic of some of our public officials, but by and large many of them work hard at what they do and take their job seriously. Mr. Hevesi's annual salary as state controller is just shy of $150,000, but his pensions are enormous. He spent 26 years as a teacher and now earns a New York state tax-free pension of $62,344. But that's only half the story. Mr. Hevesi also enjoys a second tax-free pension of $104,000 for his 22 years in the Assembly. Will he be entitled to yet a third taxpayer supported pension for his time as state controller? The combination of annual pension payouts exceeds any single year of annual salary that Mr. Hevesi earned. Pensions were never meant to provide this level of compensation that is in excess of what one would earn in the workplace. Most of us, myself included, who have spent a quarter of a century toiling in the private sector workplace don't even have a pension except perhaps a 401K or an IRA that we contributed to and we sure don't receive the same tax-free benefits that gild Hevesi's pension. Give me only two years of Mr. Hevesi's lifetime pension payout, and you will have exceeded my 25 years of IRA savings. I am not alone here and feel quite confident in saying that most of the 3,000 families who live in Glen Oaks Village, a co-op of which I am the board president, are outraged by this excess. Something is wrong with this picture and the practice of double-dipping from the same state-financed pension fund is bankrupting our state and cities. Don't expect the recipients of this largesse to rectify the problem anytime soon. I am not sure if they even see it as such. Once on the gravy train it's hard to get off.The trade-off for government work used to be lower pay for job security and excellent benefits. When did this equation change? Did we ever have a say in this? These benefit packages, which are fully funded by the taxpayers of New York, are egregiously generous in this age of tight budgets and service cutbacks. Sure, I don't begrudge the compensation that he gets; we would all love to be earning this type of money. But there is something out of whack with a state that preaches spending restraint, cuts library hours and then does nothing about these absurdly high payouts. And what will our new governor do? He sailed into office telling us that "Everything changes on Day 1." Well, here is a perfect place to begin. Fortunately for him, he did not have to decide Mr. Hevesi's fate. Would he as governor brought the same righteous zeal in pursuing such friends in high office as he did as an aggressive attorney general? We will never know the answer to that question but it would have been a true litmus test of Spitzer's moral compass. Recently, state Sen. Efrain Gonzalez (D-the Bronx) was indicted and charged with fraud and scheming the public out of $400,000 by funneling taxpayers' money through various conduits to pay for personal expenses. Spending other people's money as their own in order to satisfy their insatiable greed has become an all too familiar refrain in recent months. Mr. Spitzer has an opportunity to make a difference and set the right tone and so do the voters, who bear some responsibility in this mess. Let's not forget that it was them who put these men in office with overwhelming electoral majorities, and in the case of Hevesi, even after knowing about his alleged transgressions. Voters like to "talk the talk" about honesty and integrity in politics but they need to "walk the walk."

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