The Journal News by Joseph Spector, Sean Lahmanand & Jonathan Bandler - January 30, 2011
When Thomas Walsh II was appointed Rockland County surrogate in 2008, state and county judges were complaining that they'd gone nearly a decade without a pay raise. It was less of a concern for Walsh, whose retirement that year allowed him to start collecting a state pension on top of his judicial salary. Walsh, 62, is one of 17 so-called double-dipping judges in New York — including eight others in Westchester and Rockland — and his combined income of more than $240,000 last year tops the list, according to a review of payroll and pension records by Gannett's Albany Bureau. Double dippers collect public pensions and salaries simultaneously. Nine of the 12 whose total income topped $200,000 are from the Lower Hudson Valley. In addition to Walsh, the judges who received the highest compensation were state Supreme Court Justice Orazio Bellantoni in White Plains at $225,453, followed by Justice John F. O'Donnell in Buffalo at $221,233. They were followed by four judges in Rockland — state Supreme Court Justice William Kelly ($218,829), Rockland County Judge Charles Apotheker ($215,463) and Justices Alfred Weiner ($214,885) and Robert Berliner ($208,893) — and two from Westchester: Court of Claims Judge Robert Neary ($206,241) and state Supreme Court Justice Francis Nicolai ($205,790). The records were provided by the state Comptroller's Office after a Freedom of Information Act request. They cover payments through mid-December, meaning each of those judges' total compensation for 2010 was about $6,000 higher.
Pension, Salary Earned
The list does not include state Supreme Court Justice J. Emmett Murphy, though next year it will. Murphy, 69, won re-election in November and then put in his retirement papers, even though he plans to stay on the bench for seven more years. The amount of Murphy's pension was unavailable last week. He said he expects it to be about $80,000. But it could be higher because he worked the same number of years as Bellantoni, whose pension is more than $95,000. Murphy said New York judges should be able to avail themselves of the double compensation because they have been stuck for a dozen years at a salary that is the lowest in the country when adjusted for cost of living. And the state doesn't lose out, he said, because if he had come up short in the election, he'd get the same pension for a complete retirement and the new judge would be getting the same salary. "I earned the pension by working 41 years in the system. I earned the salary by winning the election and showing up to work every day," Murphy said. "I don't see that I have anything to apologize for." David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the state court system, said the judges are elected or appointed, so the state has no ability to limit their pensions and salaries. "We don't hire judges, they are elected (or appointed) public officials so we have no discretion whatsoever," he said. Annual salaries for judges in New York include $136,700 for Supreme Court and Court of Claims and from $119,800 to $136,700 for County, Family and Surrogate courts. Nicolai, the former administrative judge of the Ninth Judicial District covering the Lower Hudson Valley, received an additional $6,000 last year as presiding judge of an appellate term. Walsh could not be reached for comment. His retirement followed decades as a deputy county attorney. His annual pension is $104,687. He also was a Haverstraw village justice for several years and a town justice there for a year before then-Gov. David Paterson appointed him surrogate. Walsh then held onto the seat by winning the 2008 election. Like all surrogate judges, he receives an annual stipend from the state Department of Taxation and Finance for "services rendered in connection with the administration of transfer and estate taxes." The stipends are based on the size of a county's population, and Walsh's payment last year was $4,251. The stipend and his surrogate salary equal the $136,700 salary for state judges.
State Pension Rules
Elected officials and judges can retire and collect their full pensions while keeping their job once they turn 65. But if they are younger, or entered the retirement system after 1995, their pensions are suspended each year once they hit $30,000 in salary. If their retirement is from a different public sector job, there is no limit on their pensions regardless of age. Retirement age for judges is 70, but state Supreme Court justices can stay on until age 76 if they receive approval from the court system. Donald Williams, 57, an Ulster County Court judge, collected $124,238 of his $131,400 salary through December. He also collects a $79,316 pension after serving 30 years as a prosecutor in Ulster County. Williams said he actually would have been penalized by the state if he didn't begin taking his pension after he was first elected in 2009. "I wanted to not collect the pension and rejoin the system," Williams said, saying it became cost prohibitive to do so. The judges taking pensions and salaries come as they are lobbying for their first pay raise in more than a decade. And they appear to be moving closer to a raise. Late last year, the Legislature and Paterson enacted a law to create the Commission on Judicial Compensation, which would evaluate every four years how much the roughly 1,300 state judges should be paid. The committee is set to release its initial recommendations later this year. The commission is a shift from the past practice of tying judicial pay to salary increases for state lawmakers, who also haven't had a raise above their $79,500 base salary since 1999. Some state lawmakers are seeking to require elected and appointed officials to contribute to a 401(k)-type system for their pensions, which would limit the public money that goes to the system and require higher contributions from employees. Sen. Greg Ball, R-Carmel, said elected officials should lead by example. He plans to introduce the legislation in the Senate. "Before we do any pension reform that affects working-class people, elected officials should step up to the plate first, moving from a defined-benefit toward a defined-contribution model and eliminating some of these lucrative loopholes," Ball said. JBANDLER@LOHUD.COM
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