The next Camden County sheriff will be a double-dipper. Voters have no other choice in next week’s election.
If Democratic Assemblyman Gilbert “Whip” Wilson wins, he’ll be eligible for public paychecks totaling roughly $195,000 a year — $144,753 in sheriff’s salary, $50,383 in pension as a retired Camden city cop.
If Republican Lewis “Lou” Hannon is elected, his annual take would be nearly $215,000 — the sheriff’s salary plus his $70,985 pension, also as a Camden city police retiree.
Each hopes to succeed the incumbent double-dipper, outgoing Sheriff Charles Billingham. For nine years, Billingham raked in county paychecks plus his $74,479 a year pension as a retired Washington Township policeman.
“It’s a loophole — it shouldn’t exist and taxpayers should be upset,” Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Red Bank) told Mitch Blacher of NBC 10 Philadelphia, which partnered with New Jersey Watchdog for this report. “It was clearly never intended that any individual retires and then goes on to collect another publicly funded, full-time salary.”
It’s also a pattern — not only in Camden, but throughout the Garden State. A New Jersey Watchdog investigation found that sheriffs in 16 of the state’s 21 counties are collecting both salaries and pensions as retired law enforcement officers.
In addition to Billingham, the current roster of double-dipping sheriffs includes:
Statewide, New Jersey sheriffs employ 37 undersheriffs who are also double-dippers who returned to public payrolls after retiring as local, county, or state law enforcement officials. In total, the 53 officers collect nearly $10 million a year from public coffers — $5.7 million in salaries plus $4.1 million in retirement pay — according to payroll and pension records.
The Camden County candidates for sheriff see nothing wrong with it.
“I have a pension through being a Camden city police officer, and if I’m fortunate enough to get elected, I’ll collect that salary,” said Hannon, who retired at age 47 in 2009.
“Everything I’m getting from my pension I’ve earned putting my life on the line for the citizens of Camden,” said Wilson, who retired 20 years ago at age 48.
There is no question Wilson and Hannon are entitled to pensions. The issue is whether they should be able to collect that retirement pay while still on the public payroll in related jobs.
Beck’s bill, S-883, would suspend the state pensions of retirees if they return to government jobs that pay more than $15,000 a year. The retirement benefits would resume when they finally leave public service.
“When you’re collecting these retirement dollars too early, when you’re still able to work, you’re affecting the viability of the whole pension fund,” said Beck.
In fact, the state is facing a staggering debt of $194.5 billion for the pension and health benefits of public workers, according to a New Jersey Watchdog analysis.
New Jersey’s public pensions are underfunded by $113.1 billion, plus state and local governments are also on the hook for [link:$81.4 billion in unfunded health benefits] for retired and active workers.
Meanwhile, the November 3 election will do little, if anything, to change the status quo in the counties that will be choosing sheriffs.
In Gloucester County, challenger Joseph J. Micucci Jr. would join the ranks of double-dippers if he defeats Morina. Micuccui gets $64,614 a year in pension as a Washington Township police retiree.
In Salem County, Miller is unopposed.
The Essex County race is the only one with a candidate who would not be a double-dipper if elected. Republican nominee Antonio Pires does not receive a state pension. However, he is a longshot to defeat Fontoura, who is seeking his ninth term as sheriff in a Democratic stronghold.
Fontoura is a poster child for double-dipping. He draws $207,289 a year from public coffers — $144,896 in salary plus $62,393 from a pension as a retiree of his own office.
On a Friday in 1990, Fontoura retired as county undersheriff at age 47. The following Monday, he returned to work at Essex County with the same salary and duties, but a different title — sheriff’s officer chief. One year later, he took charge as sheriff, a post he’s held ever since.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Fontoura’s faux retirement. So far, he has collected $1.35 million in retirement cash without ever giving up his full-time county paycheck.
Not even Fontoura tries to defend double-dipping.
“Obviously, the loophole shouldn’t exist,” Fontoura told the Star-Ledger’s editorial board. “And I support efforts to eliminate it.”
A version of this story has been posted to the New Jersey Watchdog website.
Editor’s note: T.he original version of this story reported Assemblyman Wilson is eligible for a second state pension of $8,800 a year based on his legislative service. Because of a change in state rules, Wilson and other elected officials who took office after 2007 can no longer earn a second retirement benefit while collecting a New Jersey pension.