Posted by admin | Posted in retirement | Posted on 30-04-2012-05-2008
John Munson/The Star-LedgerN.J. state Sen. Nicholas Sacco is pictured in this file photo. Sacco has accrued 445 unused sick days, which are worth $331,970.
TRENTON — If state Sen. Nicholas Sacco stepped down today as the assistant school superintendent in North Bergen, his 445 unused sick days would be worth $331,970.
The parting check is so large that each North Bergen property owner would have to come up with $26.68 to cover the bill, among the highest payouts in state history.
Sacco — the acknowledged political boss of his hardscrabble Hudson County township — says that although the payout may be tough for taxpayers to swallow, he works hard and the generous perk is part of his contract.
“I have been in education for 43 years with a nearly perfect attendance record,” said Sacco, who also has been North Bergen mayor since 1991. “Is that fair to people? maybe not, but that is the contract that existed.”
Then there are two veteran Jersey City police detectives recently elected to the Assembly who have compiled more than $225,000 worth of unused time in a city where the bill for these sort of paydays — derisively dubbed “boat checks,” because the money would be enough to buy a boat — has forced officials to take out millions of dollars in emergency loans.
In Essex, County Executive Joe DiVincenzo has amassed about $59,000 in unused vacation time but says he does not plan on cashing in all of his time. instead, he says, he has banked it as a way to show voters that he rarely takes a day off.
These figures were obtained as part of a Star-Ledger analysis of sick and vacation time records for lawmakers and other public employees across the state. Taken together, they show that politicians can reap generous rewards from the same system they are charged with policing. The payouts also take sizable chunks out of local budgets that are already under duress.
Sacco is one of 15 lawmakers — 14 Democrats and one Republican — along with DiVincenzo, arguably the state’s most influential county executive, who have accrued about $850,000 worth of unused time that they could turn into cash, the analysis shows. nearly all of the legislators supported a 2010 law that capped payouts at $15,000 for new employees but preserved their own payouts and allowed them to continue to amass even more time.
The newspaper’s review found Sacco also has traded in 91 of his unused vacation days for $101,504 over the past five years. That’s in addition to his annual district salary of $233,725.
When told about size of the potential payout, Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie, called Sacco “the poster boy of what is wrong with this system.”
“I can’t say the words I’m really thinking,” Drewniak added. “That’s just crazy.”
NORTH BERGEN PARADOX
Sacco, 65, runs one of the most powerful political machines in the state, transforming his influence within the township and the school district into landslide victories. last year, his slate of candidates received 82 percent of the votes, a routine margin of victory in the two decades under Sacco’s rule.
Amanda Brown/The Star-LedgerEssex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo is pictured in this 2009 file photo. Records reveal that DiVincenzo has stockpiled 101.5 vacation days, and at his current salary, he could trade in those unused vacation days for a $59,691 payout.
His political allies include other highly paid school administrators, an alliance that critics say helps fuel the machine’s dominance over nearly every aspect of life in the city.
“Democracy doesn’t exist in North Bergen,” said Mario Blanch, an outspoken critic of the administration who has tried to oust Sacco from power. “He controls so many jobs, and people are so scared to cross him. That makes it nearly impossible to win here.”
In the modern age of austerity, Sacco is an anachronism. he earns a combined $298,725 salary from his three public jobs, putting him in line for one of the richest pensions in the state’s history. and state and local taxpayers have paid Sacco $1.5 million in total compensation over the past five years, records show.
Asked whether he thought his total compensation package was excessive, Sacco said, “Not after 43 years.”
Sacco and the other lawmakers who enjoy the generous perks that accompany their public jobs are part of fading breed in New Jersey, still being paid under a system that has been replaced by years of taxpayer-friendly reform in Trenton. The next generation of public employees can’t collect more than $15,000 in unused sick time and they are forbidden from cobbling together multiple jobs to boost their pension.
But old habits die hard.
In 2007, after a string of headlines about six-figure payouts, lawmakers tried to rein in the practice within school districts. Yet, as lawmakers enacted the reforms, the school district sweetened Sacco’s payout, records show.
Lawmakers capped future payouts at $15,000 and said school administrators could keep whatever time they had accrued, but they would be barred from accumulating any more. That meant Sacco got to keep his 445 unused sick days, which are worth $331,970, records show.
“I can’t guarantee I’m going to take the money. I might get sick and need to use the days,” Sacco said. “When I retire, I will sit down with the board and attorneys and figure it out. I don’t want to hurt the taxpayers of North Bergen.”
For decades, Sacco worked under a contract that paid him a year’s salary for every 600 unused sick days that he cashed in at retirement. But the math was altered in his 2007 contract, giving him a year’s salary for every 260 unused sick days and padding his payout by $187,856, records show.
“I can’t change what it is,” said Sacco. “It wasn’t something that I devised or even asked for.”
Blanch chuckled when told that Sacco insisted that the sweetened contractual provision was forced on him. “How can he say it was thrust upon him when he’s the one who got the school board elected?”
DiVincenzo earns an annual salary $153,207, but also has been collecting an annual pension of $68,856 since 2010 under a controversial state law that allows elected officials to “retire” while still in office. The 59-year-old politician took advantage of the loophole even as he worked behind the scenes with the governor to successfully roll back the health and pension benefits of public employees across the state.
DiVincenzo, a Democrat, defended the move in a Star-Ledger article in the fall, arguing that he was playing by the rules and merely cashing in on his nearly three decades as an employee in the county.
The county executive has also come under fire recently for using his campaign account to pay for lavish meals, rounds of golf and annual trips to Puerto Rico. he says the spending was for legitimate political purposes.
And despite a county policy enacted in 1997 that prohibits him and other administrative employees from amassing any more than 40 vacation days at one time, DiVincenzo is sitting on a stockpile of 101.5 vacation days, according to county personnel records. At his current salary, he could trade in those unused vacation days for a $59,691 payout, records show.
The county’s policy states that nonunion employees may carry over more than one year’s worth of vacation days, but they must take the unused days in the next year or lose them. DiVincenzo gets 20 vacation days a year, which means he can only carry a maximum of 40 vacation days at one time.
DiVincenzo has ignored the policy and banked multiple years of vacation days anyway to show the public how much time he spends at work and not at the beach, said a spokesman, Anthony Puglisi. and DiVincenzo pledges to follow the policy when he leaves.
“Joe D. never planned on getting paid for more than 40 vacation days,” DiVincenzo said in a recent phone interview.
There is precedent for cashing in all the vacation days.
DiVincenzo’s immediate predecessor was James W. Treffinger, a Republican who had cashed in 118 unused vacation days when he left in 2003. The DiVincenzo administration forced Treffinger to repay $21,161 worth of the time, arguing that he was only entitled to accrue 40 days under county policy, financial records show.
Treffinger initially vowed to fight the move, arguing that the policy didn’t apply to elected officials. But he was facing federal charges of swapping county contracts for campaign contributions and padding the county payroll with campaign staffers and eventually relented.
The two county executives before that also cashed out more than 75 days each, but they left before the 40-day policy was in place.
In addition to his unused vacation time, DiVincenzo will also get paid for one out of every five sick days he trades when he retires. Today, the value of his 130.5 banked sick days is $16,664, records show.
DiVincenzo outlined the county’s policy in a recent memo to The Star-Ledger. The final line reads, “Working together, we will continue putting Essex County first.”JERSEY CITY STRAPPED
Charles Mainor and Sean Connors, both state assemblymen, are veteran detectives in the Jersey City Police Department, where they have worked almost a quarter-century. If they retired today, city taxpayers would owe them a combined $226,919 for 559 unused days, records show.
The payouts include a generous contractual provision that gives veteran officers like Mainor and Connors an additional five days to cash in for every year of service. That provision would boost the current payouts to both officers by a combined $67,920, records show.
Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-LedgerAssemblyman Charles Mainor (D-Hudson)
In the past three years, the city has taken out $27 million in short-term loans to help make such payments to retiring city employees. Most of the money went to police officers and firefighters who fled the department as Trenton lawmakers weighed changes to their benefits, financial records show.
At the same time, the police department has not hired an officer in more than three years to replace the 103 officers who have retired. and to balance the budget, Police Chief Tom Comey — himself in line for a six-figure payout — has shut the police academy and the community affairs department and trimmed the traffic control unit.
Mainor dismissed the notion that the perks financially crippled the department, saying the culprit is the governor’s cuts in state aid to cities.
“It starts from the top down,” said Mainor, who added that he has heard more complaints from residents about the big bonuses paid to bank executives than “boat checks” to departing public employees.
The governor’s spokesman called Mainor’s comments “ludicrous” and said they show just how out of touch some public employees are with the financial struggles of the residents who must foot the bill for the perk.
“It’s an obvious waste of taxpayer resources,” said Drewniak. “The fact that a state lawmaker can’t see that really underscores the problem.”
John Lynch, 51, a lifelong resident of Jersey City and frequent critic of the current administration, said the lack of financial resources has contributed to spikes in crime and a sense of fear in the city’s neighbors that lie outside the gentrified downtown.
“We don’t have enough policing. I’ve never felt more unsafe in the city,” said Lynch. “I mean $27 million is a lot of money and that could go a long way here. The city is going broke, but the people are suffering.”
The disclosures come amid a political tug of war on the issue between Christie and the Democrats who control the Legislature.
In 2010, shortly after taking office, Christie and lawmakers capped the payments for new employees and permitted local officials to issue debt to cover the costs of the payouts, which were hitting record highs as a graying workforce reached retirement age and panic-stricken workers fled in droves while lawmakers considered rolling back benefits.
But the bipartisan bill did little to stem the tide of crippling payouts, which rose alongside a surge in retirements and layoffs across the state. Atlantic City has to set up a payment plan to pay its departing police officers and firefighters $7.1 million in 2010, while Newark taxpayers had to cover $6.1 million in payouts to firefighters.
In response, Democrats passed a much more restrictive bill last year. This time, they said, current employees could keep what they accumulated, but no more.
Christie vetoed the measure, saying it didn’t go far enough. he said employees should use sick time only when they’re ill and not treat it as a retirement check. he also wanted to trim the size of future payouts by forcing employees to draw down their banked time first when taking a vacation or sick days.
Andrew Mills/The Star-LedgerGov. Chris Christie is pictured in this March file photo. Christie vetoed a Democratic bill that would allow current employees could keep what sick time they accumulated, but not accrue any more. The measure did not go far enough, Christie said.
Like it or not, Democrats said Christie’s attempt to take away public employees’ accrued time is illegal and would be immediately challenged in court.
“If a person earns something fairly, then they should get it,” said Connors, whose unused time in Jersey City is currently worth $101,836, records show.
With the issue unresolved, veteran employees — including many state lawmakers — continue to amass time, and the bill for local governments is growing. Republicans said the fact that a group of Democratic lawmakers have a financial stake in the outcome may have something to do with the slow pace of reform.
The lawmakers and others said local leaders had offered the bigger retirement payments to defer short-term costs like pay raises.
“I don’t think they fully appreciated the down-the-road consequences of their actions,” said Bill Dressel, executive director of the League of Municipalities. “There are government officials at all levels who looked short-term and not long-term, and now in 2012, taxpayers and citizens have to pay for the decisions made decades ago.”