In one of the most egregious abuses of New Jersey’s pension system, 17 of the state’s 21 county sheriffs double dip by collecting public pensions averaging $78,000 on top of their sheriff’s salaries, jacking up their average compensation to almost $204,000. That’s almost $29,000 more than Chris Christie earns as governor.
But now, David Jones, a recently retired state police major, is trying to turn his campaign for Mercer County sheriff into a referendum on double dipping by pledging to suspend his own pension if he is elected sheriff and to refuse to employ any undersheriffs who do not agree to do the same.
Running on the slogan “One Sheriff, One Paycheck,” Jones said his victory would not only save $300,000 a year in pension payments now going to Mercer County Sheriff Jack Kemler and two of his top deputies, but could inspire voters in other counties to take a stand on double dipping by refusing to vote for anyone who does not take a similar pledge.
William Schluter, one of the state’s leading ethics advocates, seized upon Jones’ pledge to urge the new Pension and Health Benefits Reform Commission appointed by Christie to propose reforms to the state’s pension system that would ban the practice, potentially putting the governor’s political clout behind reform measures.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) and Assemblywoman Allison Littell McHose (R-Sussex) to require retired public employees who take public jobs paying more than $15,000 to forgo collecting their pensions until they leave public service has gone nowhere.
That’s because Christie and legislative leaders have been reluctant to put an end to a practice that benefits loyalists in both parties. They include Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, a Democrat who filed his retirement papers when elected to his existing job. He now collects a $68,861 pension for a job he currently holds while continuing to be paid his full $153,831 salary. Louis Goetting, a Republican, collects an $88,860 annual pension from his years in the Treasury Department on top of his $140,000 salary as Christie’s deputy chief of staff.
Nowhere, however, is the practice more egregious than in county sheriff’s offices, where 17 sheriffs and 29 undersheriffs collected lucrative law enforcement pensions on top of their salaries in 2013, according to an investigation by New Jersey Watchdog.
An NJ Spotlight analysis showed that with the election of Michael Mastronardy as Ocean County sheriff in November, the 17 sheriffs who double dip were receiving an average pension of $78,364 to go along with an average salary of $125,537 for a total average compensation of $203,901.
Mastronardy, a Republican, may well replace Armando Fontoura, the Democrat who has collected $1.1 million in pension payments on top of his salary as Essex County sheriff since he “retired” in 1990, as the poster boy for pension abuses.
Mastronardy, who retired at age 61 as Toms River police chief last year to take over as Ocean County sheriff at a $109,000 salary, not only will be collecting a $149,100 annual pension, but also is billing Toms River taxpayers $189,553 for unused sick time and $48,372 for unused vacation pay.
By comparison, Kemler, the Mercer County sheriff who served 20 years as a Trenton police office before being appointed chief sheriff’s officer in 2002, is a piker: Kemler collected an $84,828 pension to go along with his $134,280 salary last year.
But Jones, 51, who joined the State Police at age 22 and retired as a major in charge of the Office of Professional Standards that oversees trooper misconduct, says pensions should be for retirees, and has vowed to forgo his pension of just under $91,000 if he is elected sheriff.
“It seems to me that most people believe that double dipping is wrong,” Jones said. “But it is currently legal because the people who are doing it are generally very well connected within the political structure, and there is no real desire by politicians in New Jersey to change the laws that benefit themselves.
“Somebody needs to step up, and say ‘Enough is enough,’ and as the Republican candidate for sheriff in Mercer County, I am in a position where I can take this opportunity to try to make a difference. By voting for me, people can have a voice on the issue of double dipping and can say, ‘No matter what the law currently is, we’re not going to support anyone who doesn’t agree to give up his pension while he is serving in high-paid elected office,’” Jones said.
Mark Lagerkvist, who heads New Jersey Watchdog, a nonprofit ethics advocacy initiative of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, said Jones’ race is the first sheriff’s campaign in New Jersey built primarily on a pledge to forgo double dipping. “He’s the first one I know of to put his pension money where his mouth is, and to make that the main issue in his campaign,” Lagerkvist said.
Schluter, a former Republican state senator and ethics advocate who has publicly criticized Christie on ethics issues, noted that sheriff’s offices act as a “magnet for law enforcement retirees with high pensions.” Police officers can retire with pensions calculated at 65 percent of their top five years of salary, plus full family-health benefits, after 25 years of service. Law enforcement officers who run for sheriff or are appointed as undersheriffs or chief sheriff’s officers in their late 40s can collect both pensions and salaries for decades, as Fontoura has done.
Jones and Schluter both acknowledged that barring public officials from simultaneously collecting government pensions and salaries would not solve New Jersey’s pension crisis or significantly cut New Jersey’s unfunded pension liability, which now tops $54 million for state and local government retirees.
But the ultimate savings could still be in the tens of millions of dollars, and even more important, ending pension abuses would go a long way toward restoring public faith in the pension system, Schluter pointed out.
“The governor’s pension commission should focus its attention on how to eliminate double dipping and other abuses,” Schluter said. “Retirement pay should be for people who retire and have no other means of income. It shouldn’t be a gravy train, and too often it is, especially in law enforcement where the benefits are particularly generous.”
Schluter noted that police and firefighters who retire on disability pensions and collect for five years are entitled to that benefit for life. “I’m a Republican, but you have a state assemblyman in David Rible who retired on disability from law enforcement, but now goes to the gym and runs road races.” Rible retired from the Wall Township Police Department at age 31 with a back injury and receives a $54,000 disability pension in addition to his $49,000 Assembly salary.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer), who is the favorite to win a seat in Congress in this November’s election, both have been receiving pensions on top of their legislative salaries.
“The first order of business for this pension commission should be to close the loopholes in the pension system that are exploited by the politically well-connected,” Schluter asserted.