National News

New York Has Given Away the Keys to More Than a Prius

Posted May 15, 2018 11:27 p.m. EDT

Sometimes, a car crash is one person’s folly. Or maybe someone gave the keys, unwisely, to a person who shouldn’t have had them.

Then again, you might have the five-borough foolishness that underwrote what seemed to be a minor crash last week of a car that a man named Stephen Cassidy was driving. Late Tuesday night, Cassidy drove onto a sidewalk in midtown Manhattan and hit a trash bin, then stumbled his way into an ambulance and onto the front pages of newspapers.

In another era, Cassidy, a little-known power broker in New York City politics, might have made a few phone calls and gotten the matter to go away with no more noise than the mutterings of a few insiders. Not possible now, when 19-year-olds walk the streets with video cameras in their pockets. Even if Cassidy could have found a string-puller willing to help at midnight, all the king’s horses could not have rescued him from being dragged through the broad daylight of the internet.

Cassidy, the executive director of the Fire Pension Fund, was jacked up on alcohol and had cocaine in his wallet, police said. If true, it could be noted that at age 62, he was a bit long in the tooth for that sort of carrying-on. Other than the car, the damage done by Cassidy was limited to himself. His firing was announced the following morning. He leaves a salary of $212,044, plus benefits.

So whose folly was that crash?

These are fat and happy times in New York City. Money has been sloshing into the public treasury faster than City Hall can spend it, though not for want of trying. The city government now employs more people than ever. Its payroll is growing faster than the population. The car Cassidy was driving, a Prius, is owned by the city.

The job he held did not exist three years ago. Neither, in fact, did the pension fund he oversees, at least in its current form. Over the years, the city has managed to set up five separate pension systems that it runs jointly with unions. Each is its own fief. In 2016, Cassidy, who had been president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association for 14 years, left his union job and rode off into the pleasant sunset of running the newly independent fire pension system.

These five pension operations are intriguing, ripe creations, and it is hard to imagine that people spending their own personal money would want things to run like this. Each fund buys and maintains its own independent computer system. Pays its own office staff. Rents its own offices. Hires its own investment advisers. Doles out cars. All of it paid for, one way or another, by the public.

To do what seems merely sensible — merge as many of these functions as possible — would save $39 million annually, the Independent Budget Office estimates.

Worse still is the mischief and venality tucked inside some of the 108 separate benefits accounts into which the city pays more than $1 billion every year. Multiple unions oversee the administration of benefits like eyeglasses, education or extra health care. Some of those funds can be quite leaky: Audits have found that money has been “lent” to employees without documentation, and ordinary measures like timecards are not consistently used. By consolidating the funds, the city could save $164 million, according to the Citizens Budget Commission.

Such prudent measures would take work and would require governing to be put ahead of political expediency.

The indifference to any efficiency is magnified when it comes to sweetening pension benefits, an annual event in Albany, like tapping maple trees for sap in the North Country. Legislators game the next election by awarding benefits that will cost money for decades, without a thought to having enough money for school supplies a few years from now. States and cities across the country are running short of cash because of such promises, as Mary Williams Walsh reported in The New York Times last month. New York City has been exempted from these miseries because the local economy has been so strong.

Booms eventually reach an end. We will be wondering where all the money went.

Who, in the end, gave Stephen Cassidy the keys to the car?

We did. And it’s time to check the brakes before the next crash.