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Christie Salary Veto Could Contribute to Brain Drain at Pinelands Commission

Staff members have gone without raises for more than four years, make less than equivalent personnel at other agencies, union claims

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When Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a proposed raise for the staff of the Pinelands Commission earlier this month, he castigated the commissioners for “conscious disregard of the fiscal realities’’ facing the agency and the state of New Jersey, in general.

But the commission's 33 union-represented staff members deal with their own sort of fiscal realities.

They haven’t had a raise in more than four years, a fact acknowledged by the commission. In fact, their pay has been slashed by as much as 17 percent in that time, partly a result of being ordered to take unpaid furloughs, according to the union. The commission’s staff makes at least 30 percent to 40 percent less than employees at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection engaged in the same kind of work, the union said.

“There’s been a mass exodus of the best and brightest who were there to preserve the New Jersey Pinelands,’’ said Jenelle Blackmon, staff representative of the Communications Workers of America Local 1040, which represents the Pinelands staff. “It’s terrible.’’

The commission is responsible for overseeing the stewardship of the 1.1 million-acre Pinelands National Preserve, one of the largest remaining tracts of open space along the Eastern Seaboard and home to many rare plants and animal species. In recent years, however, many staffers have left because of the pay situation, Blackmon said.

The commission no longer has a single PhD in its science office or a staff economist, Blackmon said. In all, nearly two-dozen full-time positions remain open because of budget cuts, she said.

That's not a unusual situation. The Christie administration has repeatedly slashed operating funds for other state agencies, including the DEP, the state Council of Affordable Housing, and the state’s clean energy program, overseen by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. Funds raised by surcharges on customers’ electric and gas bills have been diverted to plug holes in the state budget.

To some, however, the cuts at the Pinelands Commission may have had an even bigger impact.

“You’re not paying employees comparable wages,’’ Blackmon said. “Everyone has left because of the pay disparity.’’

Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, an advocacy group working to protect the preserve, agreed.

“The morale, as I perceive it, is very low,’’ he said. “The staff doesn’t feel they are receiving compensation comparable to their abilities.’’

Perhaps more importantly, the issue is a piece of a fundamental problem with much broader implications, Montgomery said, with the commission “losing the spirit and capacity through its first 25 years.’’ Many senior staff retired, leaving gaps in expertise, he said.

Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie, declined to comment, saying the rationale for the governor’s action is fully explained in the veto message.

The debate over the direction of the Pinelands Commission has grown more heated in recent months, particularly as it concerns a proposed 22-mile natural gas pipeline that would cut through the heart of the preserve to deliver fuel to the B.L. England plant in Cape May to convert it from a coal-burning facility.

The project failed to win approval from the commission in January when it was deadlocked in a 7-7 vote on allowing it to move forward.

But the $90 million project was widely opposed by environmentalists as well as four former governors -- two Republicans and two Democrats -- in a rare show of a disagreement with a policy promoted by a chief executive who followed in their path. They argued the project would compromise the integrity of the Pinelands.

The proposed pipeline, however, reflects policies adopted by the Christie administration’s Energy Master Plan, which seeks to promote development of new natural gas pipelines to rely more on the fossil fuel as a way of generating electricity.

In his veto message, Christie focused on a decision by the commission to divert money from the Pinelands Conservation Fund, which is dedicated to protecting land in the preserve. Although the commission set aside funds to provide up to 5 percent raises, how much staffers will actually receive is still subject to negotiations, according to Blackmon.

“This confiscation by the commissioners of public funds, whether from conservation funds or from the state appropriation, is a gross abuse of authority granted to them,’’ Christie said in his veto. It is the first time any governor has vetoed the minutes of the Pinelands Commission, which essentially overrules any decisions made at the meeting.

To some environmentalists, Christie’s decision to block the raises was meant as a retaliatory action to intimidate the commission for its decision in early January not to approve the pipeline project, which enjoyed wide support from the business community.

To Montgomery, however, that reasoning does not make sense. He noted the commission’s staff negotiated a memo of agreement with the state Board of Public Utilities, which would have allowed the project to move forward had it been approved by the commission this past January.

“You’re punishing the staff who actually worked to get approval of the pipeline,’’ said Montgomery, who opposed the pipeline project.

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