Probe finds lucrative perks for some in New Jersey

AP News
Posted: Dec 01, 2009 3:00 PM

The economic downturn hasn't stopped some local governments in New Jersey from paying out generous bonuses and severance packages to employees, including six-figure cash payouts to workers in fiscally distressed cities and towns.

A State Commission of Investigation report released Tuesday concludes the lucrative perks paid to some local government workers are costing New Jersey taxpayers millions of dollars.

The report comes the day Gov. Jon Corzine is expected detail how he intends to close an unanticipated state budget gap, which could include withholding December aid payments to municipalities.

"Enough is enough," Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Lou Greenwald said after reading the report. He said it's time for towns to stop blaming the state for rising property taxes and make some tough budgetary decisions.

The SCI spent nearly a year examining the compensation and benefits paid to public employees in 75 towns, counties and local authorities.

The panel found examples of waste, excess and abuse in 80 percent of the entities it investigated, and sometimes found the hidden perks tucked into complex contract language and difficult to detect. It estimated the cash benefit payouts at $39 million in the municipalities it examined.

For example, 20 workers in Camden cashed in unused time and left their jobs with $115,000 each. New Jersey's most impoverished city has received $258 million in distressed cities aid in the past six years.

Five employees got $780,000 in unused leave in Rockaway Township in Morris County, even after budget cuts forced the elimination of a police department position.

And, in Edison, where six firefighters were laid off to help close a $8 million budget deficit in the current fiscal year, the municipality paid out $3.9 million in lump-sum payments for unused leave over the five previous years.

Corzine's office did not immediately return a call for comment.

"I've been around this state for my entire life, I had no idea, no idea that they were permitted to do that," Gov.-elect Chris Christie said of buyouts of unused sick time. "They should give it back. It's not right. This is the stuff that drives the voters crazy."

The more egregious examples cited in the report include employees who are paid to take time off for weddings and baptisms (West New York) _ or to go Christmas shopping (Union City). Police in Hoboken can qualify for up to five days off for donating blood while those in Fort Lee can earn two days off for demonstrating marksmanship on the firing range.

The independent SCI, chaired by former Attorney General W. Cary Edwards, has looked into public employee abuses periodically over the past 15 years, and has recommended reforms. A similar investigation in 2006 focusing on excessive compensation for public school administrators, yielded a legislative change that brought administrators under the same restrictions as state workers, who can cash in a maximum of $15,000 in sick leave at retirement.

Aside from such incremental steps, however, "there has been no concerted effort to rein in lavish, unreasonable and excessive public employee benefit costs in a comprehensive fashion," the report concludes.