The ranks of retired public officials who collect more than $100,000 a year from New Jersey pensions have more than doubled in the past five years, according to an NJ Spotlight analysis of state Treasury data.
When 2015 ended, 2,296 retirees were collecting six-figure pensions from state pension plans. It is a 131 percent increase above 2010, when the count was 992.
The top of the “$100K Club| is loaded with retired school executives. Former Essex County College president A.Z. Yamba leads the pack with $195,000 in annual retirement pay. Of the 30 pensioners who get $150,000 or more, 22 retired as educators.
But in sheer numbers, police and fire officials are predominate. Nearly half – or 1,131 pensioners – belong to the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System.
Of those PFRS retirees, 93 percent – or 1,050 – took advantage of a “special retirement” provision in state pension law. It allows law-enforcement officers – but not other public employees – to collect full benefits after 25 years of service, regardless of age.
When Joseph Blaettler opted for special retirement at age 46, the former Union City deputy police chief started collecting $134,773 a year from PFRS in 2009. If he reaches age 80 – his statistical life expectancy – he will cash more than $4.5 million in pension checks.
“Politicians created this system, and I simply accepted what they gave me along the way,” said Blaettler. “If taxpayers want to get angry with someone, they need to ask their state and local politicians how they allowed the system to get to the point it is at.”
Special retirement offers police and fire officials an incentive to retire before they finish their careers. Some soon return to public payrolls as “double-dippers” who are allowed to simultaneously collect pensions plus salaries for the same types of governmental jobs.
Last year, NJ Spotlight reported that 16 of New Jersey’s 21 county sheriffs pocket six-figure salaries in addition to special pensions as retired police officers. Three of them are in the $100K Club:
• Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino – $138,000 in salary plus $129,987 from pension as an Emerson Borough police retiree;
• Ocean County Sheriff Michael Mastronardy – $107,250 salary plus $124,065 pension as Toms River Township police retiree; and
• Passaic County Sheriff Richard H. Berdnik – $151,887 salary plus $102,070 pension as a Clifton police retiree
Ironically, the largest state pension plan – the Public Employee Retirement System – has comparatively few members in the $100K Club.
NJ public employees getting at least a $100,000 annual pension.
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Source: NJ State Treasury pension database
Overall, less than 1 percent of state retirees belong to the $100K Club.
New Jersey’s formulas for calculating public pensions are complex. While an employee’s final salary at retirement and length of service are the biggest factors, there are a wide variety of other considerations. Each of the state’s five major pension plans have different rules, and there are 10 different types of retirement – including service, early, special, veteran, disability, accidental disability and deferred – each with a different formula. The process is not transparent since the specific details used to determine pension payments are often exempt from disclosure under the Open Public Records Act.
What follows is a list of retirees who collect the 10 largest annual pensions from the state retirement system:
1. A.Z. Yamba – $195,000
Yamba’s final salary of $276,951 a year as Essex County College and his 42 years of public employment added up to New Jersey’s biggest public pension. So far, he has collected more than $1.1 million in pension checks since he retired in April 2010.
2. Marilyn Birnbaum – $190,779
Birnbaum retired as North Plainfield schools superintendent in July 2014. Her salary was $244,019 a year; she was a member of the Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund for 42 years.
3. John C. Richardson – $185,454
After retiring as Ridgefield Park school superintendent, Richardson returned to the same job as an interim superintendent for 14 months in 2014 and 2015. The district paid him $196,875 while he continued to collect his state pension.
4. Mark Schiffer – $184,713
Schiffer retired in 2014 as executive director of Passaic County Board of Social Services. His annual salary was $224,100.
5. Thomas Morton – $171,773
Following his retirement as Sparta schools superintendent, Morton more than doubled his income in 2012 by taking a job as chief administrator of Clarkstown Central School District in New York’s Rockland County. He continues to collect both state pension and out-of-state salary.
6. Kim B. Coleman – $169,619
The former Morris-Union Jointure Commission superintendent was paid $243,289 in salary at the time of retirement in 2012. MUJC is a regional district that services 29 public school systems.
7. Donald P. Lucas – $168,627
Lucas retired in 2014 as superintendent of Burlington County Special Services School District. Because Lucas was a military veteran, Treasury used a more favorable formula to calculate his pension. Instead of an average of his three highest years of pay, his final salary of $228,999 was based on his best 12 months.
8. Stanley Sanger – $167,082
In addition to his pension, Sanger received a lump sum payout of $188,000 for unused sick days and vacation time when he retired as Union City schools superintendent in 2014, The Jersey Journal reported.
9. Ralph Scianni – $163,814
On top of his Top 10 pension, the former Bayonne police chief began receiving a payout of nearly a half-million dollars when he retired in 2014. According to The Jersey Journal, the city agreed to pay him $444,450 for unused sick, vacation and personal time, plus termination pay in installments over three years.
10. Jo Ann Magistro – $163,194
Magistro retired as East Brunswick schools superintendent in 2013. Her pension was based on 46 years of service and a final salary of $232,710.