Senator LaValle defends collecting pension without retiring

Longtime State Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who has held that seat since 1977, has filed his retirement papers.

But he’s not retiring.

Instead, the 75-year-old Mr. LaValle is one of more than 15 elected officials in New York State who will be receiving a pension, as well as a salary while they continue to work.

And this is legal, since state law allows employees who started before 1995 to collect their full pension once they turn 65, even if they are still in office and collect their full regular salary as well.

According to Nikki Jones, a spokesperson for the state Comptroller’s office, Mr. LaValle’s annual salary is $79,500 and he receives an additional $25,000 as chairman of the Senate Majority Conference.

The exact amount of his retirement package has not yet been determined, but she said the system is based on a formula that takes into account the final average salary for the three highest paying years, as well as the number of years he has in the retirement system.

Another state official from Suffolk County, Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) filed his retirement papers last year. Mr. Englebright, who is 68 years old and has been in the Assembly since 1993, is receiving his full salary of $79,500, a pension of $61,212 and an additional salary of $33,515 for his other job as a teacher at Stony Brook University, according to state figures.

Mr. LaValle also is an attorney in private practice in addition to his senate job.

The senator says he’s taking the extra money for his family.

According to Mr. LaValle, if a state officials dies before they begin collecting their pension, their spouses or beneficiary will be paid a lump sum of up to three times their annual salary, and that’s all they get from the state.

If they die after collecting their benefits, monthly pension payments can be transferred to their beneficiary.

“This is something I could’ve done 10 years ago,” he said in an interview.  “But when the senior partner in my law firm passed away at 68, Tom Twomey, it made me realize that we’ve got to do things to protect our families. So without pressing for my retirement, my wife and family could be exposed to negative consequences.”

In the past month or so, Mr. LaValle said he’s seen three longtime colleagues pass away, mentioning Mr. Twomey, who’s law firm Mr. Lavalle is a counsel with, longtime state Senator Owen Johnson (R-Babylon) and former Governor Mario Cuomo.

So is this double dipping?

“It’s something that all people, not just me,  can utilize at age 65,” Mr. LaValle said, later clarifying that he means all government employees. “So I don’t feel that it is [double dipping]. When someone could’ve done this 10 years ago, and didn’t, I think it says that they’ve been respectful of the system. That may be what people may think, [that it’s double dipping] but there comes a time when you need to protect your family. And I would tell you that I have not received any negative feedback from this.”

Anyone in the state pension system can, at age 65, obtain a waiver to allow them to file for retirement, take the pension and continue working, he said.

“Many people are doing that,” he said, adding that elected officials are not required to file a waiver because they serve set terms and come up for re-election.

Asked if he felt it was fair that government employees can do this while many private sector employees cannot, Mr. LaValle replied, “I think that we are treating people within one class, government employees, the same way. Private employees have 401(k)s so that they, in most cases own, or that their employer contributes to, so it’s a little bit different.”

The senator says he is often asked if he plans to retire from the senate and so far, the answer is no.

“I only think of the two-year period that I’m in office for,” he said. “Right now, I would like to run again.”

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