Jim McDonald is on the verge of hitting a jackpot in New Jersey’s election sweepstakes as a new double-dipping county sheriff.
In January, he retired as Washington Township police chief at age 54 to draw a $94,000 a year state pension – and run for Warren County sheriff. After winning the GOP primary on a platform of “fiscal responsibility,” McDonald is almost a sure bet to add a sheriff’s salary of $128,000 to his income next year – increasing his annual public pay to $220,000.
His sole opposition is longshot Joseph DeWitt, an independent candidate who skipped the primary. If elected, the retired part-time Independence Township cop has promised not to collect his $13,000 a year pension while sheriff. McDonald and his campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
“Public pensions are not really intended to be a way to change your lifestyle and double your income,” said Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Red Bank), a longtime opponent of double-dipping. “It was created to support you when you are no longer working.”
Currently, three-fourths of the state’s sheriffs — 16 out of 21 — take advantage of existing loopholes to draw county salaries while receiving pensions as law enforcement “retirees,” according to NJ Spotlight analysis. In an upcoming election packed with sheriff candidates who are double-dippers or would-be double-dippers, those numbers are unlikely to change much.
Warren County Sheriff Richard Galant and Morris County Sheriff Edward Rochford are not seeking re-election, but all candidates running to succeed them are receiving monthly checks from the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System.
The Morris showdown pits two county retirees against each other for a job with a $139,000 salary. Democrat Mark Dombrowski, a former sheriff’s officer, gets $48,000 year from a disability pension. Republican James Gannon, a retired investigator for the county prosecutor, has pledged to not to collect his $78,000 a year pension while sheriff, if elected.
In Bergen County, Sheriff Michael Saudino is opposed by Republican Manuel Alfonso, a chief investigator for the state Department of Corrections. Saudino was elected as a Republican, but switched his allegiance to the Democratic Party this year.
Saudino rakes in more than any other double-dipping sheriff – $138,000 in salary plus $130,000 from pension. Alfonso is eligible for an $80,000 a year pension, but has promised not to collect retirement pay while he serves as sheriff.
Six other incumbent double-dippers are either unopposed or heavily favored over opponents who do not collect state pensions. They are:
Burlington County Sheriff Jean Stanfield (R) is not a double-dipper, but her opponent would become one if elected.
Democratic hopeful James Kostoplis gets $88,000 a year as a retiree of the Hamilton Township police in Mercer County. The Burlington sheriff’s salary of $120,000 would boost that total to $208,000 per annum.
Burlington freeholders are now considering a proposal to prohibit the county from hiring public pensioners. But the measure is unlikely to affect the county sheriff, an elected office established by the state constitution.
In seven counties — Essex, Mercer, Camden, Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, and Cape May – incumbent double-dipping sheriffs are not up for re-election this year. Follow this link to see the full list.
Overall, there are 11 “retirees” running for sheriff in 10 counties in the upcoming election. Seven of those candidates are incumbents. Only two counties — Hudson and Monmouth — have contests that do not involve pensioners
New Jersey’s tradition of double-dipping sheriffs began a quarter-century ago with Essex County’s Armando Fontoura.
In 1990, Fontoura retired as the county’s undersheriff at age 47. Three days later, he was rehired as the sheriff’s officer chief, a personnel maneuver to allow Fontoura to simultaneously receive both a pension and a county paycheck. The following year, he was elected sheriff, a job he has held ever since.
Without leaving the county payroll, Fontoura has raked in more than $1.4 million in retirement pay. Last year, he was elected to his ninth three-year term.
Double-dippers are also employed by county prosecutors, the state attorney general, the state police, local school districts, and other governmental entities — including the state Legislature.
The practice is most prevalent among law enforcement officers because of a provision of state law that applies only to them. Regardless of age, members of PFRS and the State Police Retirement System can retire with full pensions after 25 years of service. It provides a strong economic incentive to retire at relatively young ages, then return to public payrolls under a different job title.
“Many states just absolutely don’t allow it because they understand there’s a fiscal consequence, but New Jersey has a long history of allowing it,” said Beck. “It is a public policy that is wrong, and it will change when we reach a crisis scenario with our public pension system.”
“It has great symbolic importance … as the double-dippers have become the ‘face’ of a dysfunctional public pension system,” concluded a report by the governor’s Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission last year. “For this reason, the task force should consider ways to further limit this practice.”
Beck has been trying to close double-dipping loopholes since 2011, when she first proposed legislation that would halt pension checks to public retirees who return to government jobs that pay more than $15,000 a year.
Like its predecessors, the latest bill, S-515, has been trapped in committee since it was filed in January at the start of the current legislative session.
“We have to make a change,” said Beck. “Double-dipping is nonsensical and it’s not right. It may be allowed, but that doesn’t mean it is right.”