Public workers retiring with $600K checks? It may come to an end
TRENTON — Two Democratic senators last week introduced a bill capping sick-leave payouts to local government workers at $15,000, or whatever they’ve banked so far if they’re above that.
The sponsors of S2300 include Sen. Paul Sarlo, the influential chairman of the Senate budget committee who is also on the task force Senate President Steve Sweeney has convened to assess New Jersey’s taxes and government spending.
That would suggest the bill could have a future. It’s the latest of nine bills introduced so far this legislative session that would rein in what are sometimes six-figure checks written to workers as they retire.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who oversees local governments as commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, said she hasn’t discussed the topic with Gov. Phil Murphy but hopes that the administration and lawmakers can work together to cap sick-leave payouts to local workers.
“I do believe a statewide standard is good because it costs people money,” Oliver said. “Look at a couple of years ago [...] Jersey City had to bond $5 million to cover a couple of retirements out of their police department."
Oliver noted that towns and counties already can cap sick-leave payouts. She said Essex County, where she was an assistant county administrator until becoming lieutenant governor, has a cap.
“Freeholder boards, councils – they can address that issue now,” Oliver said. “But I do believe that that is something that has to be examined.”
"Boat checks" have often been big news in New Jersey. In July, Bayonne's police chief retired with arrangements to receive $291,004 over two years for unused time, NJ.com reported. The city's current public safety director collected $320,000 when he retired as chief in 2012.
In 2011, the former head of Long Branch public schools exited with $600,000 in payouts for unused time, boasting he was never out sick a day in his life, The Asbury Park Press reported.
And the checks are expensive for New Jersey taxpayers. The New Jersey State League of Municipalities says municipalities alone are on the hook for $863 million. That doesn’t count school districts and counties. NJ Spotlight calculated that the combined total is approaching $1.9 billion.
East Rutherford Mayor James Cassella said it’s difficult for local governments to negotiate caps on sick-leave payouts when workers know state law doesn’t require it, so he hopes for action by the Legislature and Murphy.
“Anything would help. Even if it’s for newly hired people or to freeze it,” Cassella said.
“Any cap is better than none,” he said. “And if they were talking $7,500 or $15,000, I think it would be a very good step forward.”
The Legislature has voted in the past to cap sick-leave payouts at $15,000 going forward, the same that is allowed for state workers. In 2010, then-Gov. Chris Christie asked for such a cap – but then vetoed it, saying there should be no sick-leave payouts at all.
“I could never figure out why,” Cassella said. “You know, sometimes you can’t always – I don’t mean to quote the Rolling Stones here, but you can’t always get what you want, you get what you need.”
Christie also rejected a potential compromise at $7,500. Oliver said some Democratic lawmakers continued to search for a workable middle ground but that anti-worker rhetoric got overheated.
“When he started throwing the zingers in about the boat checks and dada-dada-da, I think that just made it such a contentious issue that nothing could be resolved,” Oliver said.