Gov. Christopher Christie made a surprise visit to West New York on Tuesday morning to appeal to residents to push for sick pay and civil service reform.
With West New York Mayor Felix Roque, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, and Union City Mayor Brian Stack in attendance, Christie informed an audience of around 200 that the accumulated, unused sick pay that government workers collect at retirement costs New Jerseyans around $825 million in taxes per year. This works out to an average of $250 in property taxes per resident.
"I always thought that sick days were for when we were sick," he said, and called the post-retirement payouts "boat checks," implying that retirees count on the money to buy boats.
Regarding proposed legislation to cap payouts at either $15,000 or $7,500, Christie stated he refused to accept anything higher than zero.
He also called for legislators to allow towns to opt out of civil service, a state system that protects government workers and maintains rules for their hiring and firing.
“Everybody is suing.” – Dawn Zimmer
Reforms, Christie said, would save municipalities $247 million on pension costs alone in the first year. And in particular, civil service reform would allow municipalities like West New York, Union City, and Hoboken to share services and run more cost-effectively.
“You're the ones who are paying the bill,” he said.
Christie proposed five-day furloughs (unpaid leave) for workers in conjunction with civil service reform.
“Rather than having to lay somebody off,” he said, “you furlough them for a couple of days to keep them employed, keep them receiving health benefits, keep them being taken care of.”
Bringing it home
Christie broke it down by town: West New York is hit the hardest with $7.8 million paid out to retirees for accumulated sick pay annually, which equals out to around $869.98 per taxpayer per year.
This issue hit home for Mayor Felix Roque, who has dealt with the ongoing controversy surrounding former Board of Education Trustee Janet Passante, who has been attempting to collect around $300,000 in unused sick and vacation days. He did not mention her by name, but he referenced the instance as an example as to why he is for sick pay reform.
Roque also agreed that civil service reform would help local towns work together and share services, and cited North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue as an example of this.
Union City ranked next highest with $1.6 million per year, which works out to around $839.91 per tax payer per year. As for the legislators Christie criticized for preventing reform, he counted Stack as exempt. “He's a mayor,” he said. “He understands.”
Stack called the payouts a "budget breaker," and mentioned he has to be aware of who is retiring year to year in order to be sure the city can afford to pay.
Hoboken came in with around $1.6 million per year and $84 per taxpayer. Zimmer agreed with Christie's call to reform and said, "It's about the city employees who are working very hard, not those working the system."
She went on to mention how the costs of civil service litigation in her town are an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.
"Everybody is suing,” she said. “The process is a big waste of time and it's very, very expensive.”
Christie urged residents to contact their legislators and visit NJ.gov and push for reform. “Ask them one simple question: why do you think I have to pay for someone not being sick?”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at email@example.com