Should part-time elected officials be allowed to get full-time health benefits paid for by the taxpayers? One Secaucus resident doesn’t think so, and believes the practice, although legal, is unethical and unfair.
Resident Tom Roarty made the comments in relation to four of Secaucus’ council members during Tuesday’s council meeting.
“This is unfair to taxpayers. Why should I have to pay for [these] health benefits?” said Roarty during the open remarks portion of the meeting. He said that council members Gary Jeffas and Robert Costantino earn full-time annual salaries at other jobs while collecting health benefits from the municipality.
“Whether it is $2,000 or $200,000 it is unethical and it is wrong,” said Roarty. “This is not the honest open government that the Take Back Secaucus ticket ran on…this is just a lighter version of typical Hudson County politics.”
The six council members get paid an annual salary of $12,500, and four of them collect full-time health benefits, which the municipality covers in full. The municipality pays $24,725 in annual family health benefits for Costantino and Jeffas, $19,602 for Deputy Mayor John Bueckner and his wife, and $9,837 for Councilman William McKeever.
“You are still listed as a part-time employee receiving full-time benefits.” – Tom Roarty
According to a representative from the State Comptroller’s Office, as of May 21, 2010 any elected official whose hours are fixed at 35 hours a week is eligible for full-time health benefits. Part-time elected officials are not eligible for full-time benefits.
However, Costantino, Bueckner, and McKeever were elected in 2009 for terms that began Jan. 1, 2010. Jeffas was re-elected in 2010 for a term that began Jan. 1, 2011. The state law allows all of them to be grandfathered in and to collect benefits, while barring newly-elected part-time officials from doing the same.
So the practice is not illegal, but Roarty questioned whether it was ethical.
“We are allowed to do it,” said Mayor Michael Gonnelli. He said the practice dates back many decades.
“It is a perk…to serve in this position so these people are entitled to benefits,” said Gonnelli.
Gonnelli noted that the municipality saved $175,000 a month after a switch to the state health benefits plan for municipal employees earlier this year.
“There is nothing illegal or unethical about it…and it is not a secret,” said Gonnelli.
“You are acting as if I came in and said ‘Give me something nobody else gets’,” said Jeffas. “The bottom line is, that you don’t know what I make, and you don’t know what my bills are.”
“You are still listed as a part-time employee receiving full-time benefits,” said Roarty.
Jeffas said after the meeting that he has his own law practice and that the practice doesn’t provide him or his wife with health benefits. Costantino said that he is self-employed as part of a small business group. He was paying over $2,000 a month as part of a group plan years ago.
“You make a decision to sacrifice your life for the town you love,” said Constantino. “I wouldn’t complain that the last administration took it and I wouldn’t complain that the next administration took it.”
He said his weekly hours vary throughout the seasons. He noted that last year he worked 36 hours straight during Hurricane Irene.
“The goal of government should be to get qualified people,” said Gonnelli. He noted that Jeffas is an attorney and Costantino has a finance background. “The guys dedicate a lot of time…and work more than 19.5 hours.”
He said the council has helped save the municipality money by going after outstanding fees, identifying various sources of revenue, and switching to state benefits.
“We don’t have the Cadillac [health insurance plan] anymore and that is what people in the past got,” he said.
Sports Authority to get billed for MetLife Stadium events
In other meeting news, Gonnelli said that sporting events in the Meadowlands force Secaucus to provide more resources, so, “We are going to be billing the [New Jersey] Sports [and Exposition] Authority for all costs incurred during events.”
He said the Giants and Jets professional football teams have a great deal because they don’t pay taxes and get millions from sponsorships. He said that they also collect money for parking.
The municipality will begin sending bills any time the Police or Fire Departments are called on to provide services during events at MetLife Stadium, which is located in nearby East Rutherford, he said.
Other Meadowlands municipalities will do the same, like Carlstadt, according to the mayor. The town administrator indicated that the town spends a few thousand dollars each time there is an event at the stadium.
“It is our intent to really turn up the heat on the Giants and Jets,” added Gonnelli.
According to a statement from the NJSEA in reaction to the measure, their only legal obligation is their $6 million payment in lieu of taxes they make annually to East Rutherford.
Parks and parking
The municipality has taken strides to limit the number of out-of-town visitors suspected of parking on neighborhood streets in order to take a bus to New York City. The city wants to extend the residential permit parking zone. As it stands right now, by local ordinance, the entire length of Minnie Place on the southern side, First Street, Second Street, Third Street, and Fourth Street are designated as parking for residents only/residential parking zones, as is Golden Avenue from Front Street to the dead end of Golden Avenue. Visitors can park within a four-hour limit before having to move their car.
The mayor and Town Council have now introduced an ordinance to make Eighth Street, Hudson Avenue, and Ninth Street from Flanagan Way to Mansfield Avenue parking for residents only. The zone will also extend to the entire length of Tenth Street. A public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 25.
The design for the new Little League field has been completed and the upgrades will be paid for by a grant from an undisclosed contributor. The town is accepting bids for the restoration and upgrade of the field.
Appointments, new hires, and new contracts
Maschio’s Food Services, the company that provides the school district’s meals, has lost their contract with the municipality for Recreation Department after-care program snacks. The contract has been switched to local business Natoli’s Delicatessen to provide a snack for 200 children at the rate of $1.50 a snack, which was the same rate Maschio’s provided in their bid.
After the recent death of Louis Canavari, former Mayor Richard Steffens has been appointed to fill in his seat on the Affordable Housing Board and Michael Grecco has been appointed to fill in his seat on the Secaucus Housing Authority.
Architect Jonathan Zane has been appointed to the Board of Adjustment and will fill in to the end of this year the unexpired term of Frank Bufemi, who resigned.
Recycling Monitor Robert Cortez resigned. No decision has been made on whether to fill the vacant position.
Pat Duda has been appointed as an After-Care Counselor for the Secaucus Recreation Department and Thomas Malanka, Sr. has been appointed as a Fitness Director.
Kristi Heller has been hired as a part-time animal shelter assistant.
Jay Genatt has been hired as the Construction Coordinator at the salary of $83,000 in the Department of Public Works.
Pending the completion of a successful physical examination, Amita Singh, Michael Marrone, and Catherine Rutowski have been hired as school crossing guards.
Awards and presentations
• Home Depot was presented with a “Serving the Community Award,” for their support helping to beautify the town, from support for the new community garden, to helping with the Christmas decorations. “Our town is beautiful because you are a part of it,” said Gonnelli.
• The municipality is the first in the state to “upcycle” with Citilog, an urban saw mill located in Newark that takes in all of the tree waste that comes down from storms or if the trees are sick. The company turns those trees into usable lumber, fencing, park benches, and other products. They will provide heat and energy to the new supermarket coming to town.
• Secaucusnj.org, the municipality web site, has gotten a facelift and will re-launch a week after Labor Day. The re-designed web site features a new layout, videos of the council meetings, Facebook and Twitter feeds, event updates, and photos.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at email@example.com.