NJ lawmakers move to expand early pension benefit for police, fire
TRENTON — More police officers and firefighters in New Jersey would be eligible for pensions after 20 years on the job, regardless of their age, under a proposal moving through the Legislature.
Police officers and firefighters generally can retire in New Jersey at age 55, though a law approved in 2000 created a pension in the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System equal to 50% of a worker’s final salary after 20 years of service time.
The state, over the objection of unions, interprets that provision as applicable only to people who were in PRFS at the time the law was enacted. It has now been just over 20 years since that law was enacted, so there are now officers and firefighters with enough time on the job who are ineligible for what was known as “the burnout bill.”
“There’s a real level of stress that comes with being in police and fire. And individuals will get to a point in their career where they’ve just taken as much as they can take,” said Rob Nixon, a lobbyist for the New Jersey State PBA.
“This restores that eligibility, and it ensures that those officers who simply must go have the opportunity to do so,” Nixon said.
The bill, S1017/A2562, appears on track for legislative approval, as it was unanimously endorsed Thursday by the Senate state government committee and has the support of Senate President Steve Sweeney. The Assembly had voted 71-0 with six abstentions for an identical bill in December, but that version died in the Senate without action in the lame-duck session and so the bill must start the process again.
Robert Gries, executive vice president of the New Jersey State FOP, said fewer than 1% of eligible people have taken the 20-and-out pension under the 2000 law, which amounts to a few dozen a year, and that towns can save money when it happens because retiree health benefits aren’t included.
“With law enforcement suicides being so high over the past five years, a five-year early out advantage would likely save some lives of some of our heroes in blue,” Gries said.
Fiscal analysts at the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services said that while it’s not likely all 6,881 members of PFRS eligible under the change would retire after 20 years, if they did it would increase pension allowances nearly $414 million a year and add almost $4 billion to PFRS’ unfunded liability.
Nixon argued that it would have no impact on the liability. John Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties, said that it would have to have some fiscal impact, somewhere in between what Nixon and OLS said.
“If you hire a police officer at 20 years old in your town, this legislation will allow that police officer to retire at 40 years of age,” Donnadio said. “And say hypothetically the salary is $120,000 a year. They retire at 50 of that. They’ll be earning $60,000 a year for the next 30 or 40 years of their life.”
The Police and Firemen’s Retirement System was about 70% funded as of mid-2018, the most recent actuarial figures available – with $28.1 billion in assets to cover $40.5 billion in liabilities, a gap of nearly $12.4 billion.
“We are concerned about providing an enhanced benefit before the fund is stable,” said Lori Buckelew, a senior legislative analyst for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. “Our ultimate goal is to get our pensions funds healthy and stable.”
Donnadio said the proposed bill doesn’t strengthen the pension fund’s finances and could lead to a further strain on property taxes, which averaged $8,953 statewide in 2019.
“With really no relief in sight from quite frankly the Legislature or this administration on how to control property taxes, I think we’ve hit an all-time high this past year, this bill really doesn’t help,” Donnadio said.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.