In Jersey City, the administration of Mayor Steven Fulop had been in office for less than a month when City Council President Rolando Lavarro Jr., a Fulop ally, publicly asked his colleagues to end health benefits for board members and commissioners who sit on the city’s Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA) and the Jersey City Incinerator Authority (JCIA).
The intent was to phase out costly perks often given to political insiders.
The move was something of a symbolic gesture, only affecting two MUA commissioners, since the council had already passed a law in 2010 at Fulop’s behest, requiring that new MUA and JCIA commissioners be barred from receiving city health benefits.
The trend toward curtailing perks like government cars and large sick banks has reached from city halls to Gov. Christopher Christie, who has called on state legislators to end these benefits and lower property taxes.
“This is a trend that was really borne out of the Great Recession,” said Stevens Institute of Technology Assistant Professor Jonathan Wharton recently. “The cost of running government increased, due to rising health care and retirement costs, at a time when regular working people couldn’t afford tax increases to pay for those escalating costs.”
Since many of these perks have been phased out in recent years, taxpayers have focused more attention to the ones that remain in place.
There are numerous bodies in Hudson County that still give out benefits and small stipends for various positions – sometimes warranted for hours of work, sometimes not, depending on whom one asks. But even the smallest stipend or benefits package can become a lucrative reward for a loyal political ally.
Hudson County’s nine part-time county freeholders vote on policy and budgets for the county. They earn an average salary $39,147 and are eligible to receive a county-owned car, although not all freeholders accept the cars. In addition, each freeholder is given a budget of $20,000 to hire part-time aides for constituent services and legislative research.
Each freeholder has about two to four aides, who earn different stipends depending on their experience, the number of hours they work, and other factors. The aides can earn as much as $7,000 or as little as $1,000.
The trend is to end such political perks as government-owned take home cars and cashing out sick days.
“I couldn’t tell you how many people took advantage of the county health care plan,” said County Spokesman Jim Kennelly. “Since a lot of these people were eligible to receive benefits from other jobs, a lot of them took health care from their full-time employers or from a spouse. Just because they were eligible for the benefit does not automatically mean they used it.”
Under pressure to end health benefits for part-time aides, the freeholders voted in 2011 to end health benefits for any new aides hired in the future. Current aides who had health benefits before this change were granted permission to continue to receive benefits.
Due to turnover, many aides who were working then since have left.
At present, only one freeholder aide, Carmelo Garcia, who also serves full-time as Hoboken Housing Authority director and is running for state Assembly, is still eligible to receive county health benefits under the old law. Garcia, an aide to Freeholder Anthony Romano, receives a $1,500 per year annual stipend. But Garcia said last week that he has always declined the county’s health plan.
“I have always been eligible, but have always refused to use that benefit,” he said. “I don’t think that any part-timer should get health benefits.”
As for the stipend he received for being Romano’s aide, Garcia said it is fair, given the number of hours he gives to the freeholder. He said that on paper, he is supposed to work 15 hours a week, but said he typically puts in more than the required hours, despite having a demanding full-time job at the Hoboken Housing Authority.
“At the end of the day I believe I give the county more hours in service than what I’m being paid,” he said.
In previous years he made as much as $3,000 annually as a freeholder aide.
Garcia said that if elected to the state Assembly, he would like to work with other legislators to end health care benefits for part-time workers and public volunteers who sit on boards.
“Everyone is aware that health care costs continue to rise,” he said. “I think we have to be conscientious of the present state of affairs, which means if I can save taxpayers and permanent full-time employees money within public organizations, then that would be more prudent.”
If elected, he also said he would resign as Romano’s aide.
Aides to city council members
In Jersey City, the nine members of the City Council are considered part time. They earn a salary of $33,430 and each get one full-time aide who earns $15,000. The aides are entitled to receive city health benefits.
Even within the reform-oriented Fulop administration, questions have been raised about these benefits and who gets them.
In July, at-large City Councilwoman Joyce Watterman raised eyebrows when she tried to hire her daughter Jennifer Watterman as her aide. She reversed course after Lavarro and others criticized her for the planned hire.
Ward B City Councilman Khemraj “Chico” Ramchal was until recently an aide to Freeholder William O’Dea. He has, however, resigned from this position.
Prior to Fulop’s election, members of the City Council were also eligible to receive a municipal car and one free tank of gas each week from the municipal gas station along Route 440. Fulop was the only City Council person who refused to accept this perk. Once elected mayor, Fulop ended the use of municipal cars for nonemergency workers, a plan that went into effect on Aug. 1.
In North Bergen, the five part-time city commissioners receive salaries and health benefits and are given financial resources to hire part-time aides, if they wish. In their form of government, the commissioners also help oversee a city department. The amount of money they get for aides varies depending on their needs.
According to North Bergen Spokesman Phil Swibinski, the commissioners each receive $14,500 as a part-time salary, and Mayor Nicholas Sacco, who is one of the commissioners, receives only $15,000 as a salary. As for aides, two of the commissioners have hired two aides, and one has no aides.
“One difference between the commissioner form of government and the city council form of government (as in Jersey City) is that in North Bergen, the commissioners serve a quasi legislative function,” Swibinski explained. “Each of the commissioners serves on the commission, but they each also manage a [municipal] department.”
Next door, in Secaucus and West New York, where council people and commissioners are also part-time, the members do not get health care or aides.
In Hoboken, the nine part-time City Council members are eligible for benefits, but are not paid a salary or stipend and do not have paid aides.
Union City represents an interesting case. Because the city receives transitional aid from the state, its part-time officials, elected or otherwise, are supposed to be barred from receiving health benefits. However, sources said that Union City’s five commissioners, including Mayor Brian Stack, receive health benefits anyway.
When the Reporter inquired about this in August of last year, both the state Department of Community Affairs and Mayor Stack declined to speak on the matter or even answer the question of whether the commissioners were getting health benefits.
Sources said that Stack’s administration applied for and got an exemption from Trenton.
Benefits divide reformers
“Where you see the most anger of these benefits is in places where there have been tax increases, allegations of financial mismanagement, or where a reform-oriented administration is not keeping to the principles on which it ran,” said Assistant Professor Wharton.
In Hoboken, where current Mayor Dawn Zimmer ran and won office as a reformer, her supporters were divided after the City Council majority voted in 2010 to appoint Tony Soares to the nine-member North Hudson Sewerage Authority board.
That board helps oversee the sewerage authority, which manages sewer lines in Hoboken, Weehawken, Union City, and West New York. Members get a $5,000 stipend and health benefits.
The Sewerage Authority has often come under scrutiny for alleged double-dipping by public officials. Its commission – Frank Raia, Libero Morotta, Harold Schroeder, Patleo Spaccavento, Alex Velazquez, Brian Kappock, Count Wiley, Erica Zucconi, and Soares – includes a commissioner in West New York and three well-connected political operatives.
Soares, a former city councilman allied with Hoboken’s reformer coalition, already was serving in a volunteer position on the city’s nine-member Zoning Board. According to media reports at the time, he specifically lobbied for the sewerage appointment because of the stipend and health benefits that would come with the position.
Zimmer and some of her allies on the council, specifically Ravi Bhalla and David Mello, refused to support Soares, even though he had been an ally in the past. They said he should not have positions on two boards at once.
Other reformers supported Soares.
The matter spilled onto local Zimmer-allied blogs, where many angry comments were exchanged, with some saying that it was against reform to put Soares on two boards.
“It isn't about whether or not he is qualified to sit on a board or whether or not he will fight on the issues or not,” wrote one blogger in a long post, resulting in 80 comments back and forth.
In the end, Soares received the votes needed to be appointed to the Sewerage Authority, a body on which he continues to sit today. He continues to receive his stipend and health benefits. He has since left the Hoboken Zoning Board.
Most boards in Hudson County are all-volunteer, and they vary in the time commitment. Some zoning or planning board members may spend hours listening to development applications and other matters. Some boards may be particularly important in helping push through a certain mayor’s agenda. So even positions that are not financially lucrative may politically powerful.
No more cars in the ‘D’
In Detroit, which filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, the city’s emergency fiscal manager has been calling on the City Council there to give up their municipally-paid for cars, gasoline, and cell phones to scale back what has been described as a “bloated” local government.
Assistant Professor Wharton said that taxpayers are demanding that governments be run more like the private sector.
In the private sector, he said, employees may declare work-related expenses on tax returns rather than for the company to pay for these expenses. Also, part-time workers rarely get health benefits, and even full-time employees typically make a contribution for health benefits.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.