This is commentary from political blogger and cartoonist Rob Tornoe.
In a speech at the Alfred E. Smith memorial dinner, former President George W. Bush told an audience overflowing with extremely wealthy people, “This is an impressive crowd—the haves and the have mores.” He could have easily been speaking of the upper-crust of New Jersey retired workers, who earn more than 90 percent than the rest of the country, and are becoming millionaires on the backs of over-burdened taxpayers.
Take for instance former Manchester Police Chief William Brase. Back in January 2011, Brase asked his colleagues to help him determine if it was the right time for him to retire. I’m guessing they simply showed him a piece of paper with $ 118,952 written on it – the pension Brase will receive every year for the rest of his life.
I don’t mean to single Brase out. He just happens to be one of nearly 1,500 retired public officials that collect more than $100,000 a year, an increase of almost 50 percent in just two years, according to a New Jersey Watchdog analysis of state pension data.
Looking at the numbers, one thing that stands out are the number of retired police and fire officials that belong to this exclusive $100K club – 631 to be exact. And of those, a whopping 92 percent took advantage of a “special retirement” clause that allows police, prosecutors and fire officials (and not other employees, like Christie’s favorite scapegoat – teachers) to collect these outrageous pensions as early as 42.
Who wants to be a Millionaire?
Former Union City deputy police chief Joseph Blaettler is one. Using the “special retirement” clause, Blaettler was able to step down with a $135,000 a year pension at the age of 46. This means that if Blaettler manages to make it to the age of 80, the residents of Union City will have shelled out more than $4.5 million in pension checks.
You read that right – Blaettler will become a millionaire. In retirement. So much for the “sacrifice” of being a public servant.
It’s not that I’m against pensions or unions. I’m against these sweetheart deals made between union officials and the politicians they were able to get elected. Blaettler defends the $11,250 he receives a month by saying, “Politicians created this system, and I simply accepted what they gave me along the way.” What a hero.
The fact is these outrageous payments are unsustainable. Not only are New Jersey’s sky-high property taxes driving residents and business out of the Garden State, the ever-increasing amount of six-figure pensions led to an increase of 13 percent in the state’s public pension deficit, which now totals $47.2 billion.
Part of that deficit can be attributed to every governor going back to James Florio underfunding the contributions that the state was supposed to make. Even Chris Christie, who has taken steps to fix the broken system, skipped a $3 billion pension payment in 2011. But the increase in the amount of six-figure is putting added pressure on an over-burned tax base, which will have to devote $5 billion of its $30 billion state budget every year just to cover the cost of retirees.
The largest pension the state pays out is $195,000 a year, and because this is New Jersey, not one, but two retirees make that amount.
“There’s a tie,” Mark Lagerkvist of New Jersey Watchdog told CBS New York. “Former Jersey [City] school superintendent Charles Epps. Of course when he stepped down last year from his job, he also got a $268,000 contract settlement plus $85,000 a year in unused sick time,” Lagerkvist said. “Also tied at $195,000 is A.Z. Yamba, who is the former President of Essex County College.”
So what can we do? For starters, I say we cap the maximum amount a state retiree can earn annually from their pension. I’m a cartoonist, not an economist, so I’ll leave the exact amount the cap should be to real number crunchers (although keeping it under six-figures would be a good start).
I do know that members of the 100k club are giving a bad name to all state workers, most of which still earn less than $50,000 a year and will enjoy modest pensions and benefits when they retire.
Take for example Beverly Bearmore. Bearmore retired from the Ocean Country Board of Social Service back in December after more than 40 years on the job. I for one think her service is fantastic, and she earned a pension that can help support her the rest of her life. But can anyone justify taxpayers paying her $130.000 year? Keep in mind, even with all the top-heavy pensions, the average pension in the state is just under $50,000 a year.
Ultimately, the state should make some changes to these outrageous pensions. In addition to pension caps, maybe the state can calculate them using an employee’s base salary, and not include overtime, which savvy soon-to-be retirees jack up in their final years of working to bump up their lifetime pension.
The state should also set a reasonable retirement age before workers can start collecting benefits. Whatever that number is, it shouldn’t start with a “4. ” After all, a pension is supposed to be a retirement benefit, not the answer to the question, “How did you earn your first million?
Rob Tornoe is a political cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. See more of his work at RobTornoe.com, and follow him on twitter @RobTornoe.