The fattest pensions for public workers Lawmakers start focusing on multiple job-holders

The fattest pensions for public workers
Lawmakers start focusing on multiple job-holders
August 31, 2006   Star-Ledger Staff

For lawyer Damian Murray, the road to a comfortable, taxpayer-supported retirement runs through Lacey Township. And Dover Township. And Seaside Heights. And five other Ocean County communities.

Murray, a former county freeholder, serves as a municipal court judge in those towns, and they will pay him a combined $287,000 for his services this year, according to figures prepared for a legislative panel by the state Division of Pensions and Benefits.

Of more interest to reform-minded lawmakers and state officials, Murray's eight salaries would qualify him for an annual pension estimated at more than $135,000 even if he were to retire today, at age 57.

The Ocean County lawyer is among more than 5,000 public employees running up pension credits in more than one public job, a hot-button issue at a time when lawmakers are considering fundamental changes to the pension system to rein in expenses.

Last week, the state's pension director told a legislative panel looking for ways to cut property taxes by reforming public employee benefits he would provide a list of the people holding the most public positions, along with their salaries.

The list, a draft of which was obtained by The Star-Ledger, is expected to be presented to the panel today.

Murray doesn't hold the largest number of positions -- that distinction belongs to Gloucester County lawyer Jere Powell, a municipal judge in 11 South Jersey communities -- but Murray does earn the most from his multiple posts, the list shows.

Several others are not far behind.

Edward L. Kerwin, an assessor in Warren Township and seven other communities, will earn $255,956 in assorted salaries, while parking expert Leonard T. Bier will make a combined $204,000 in salary from posts with Middlesex County and four North Jersey parking authorities, according to the list.

Powell, the Gloucester County lawyer with 11 posts, will earn $186,404 this year, enough to qualify her for a pension estimated at $74,000 a year when she turns 60.

Neither Murray nor Powell could be reached for comment yesterday evening.

Those on the draft list work as municipal attorneys, judges, tax assessors, and other "professional service" vendors-- positions that Gov. Jon Corzine and the Benefits Review Task Force, a state advisory panel, contend should not receive pensions.

Those vendors should instead be treated as independent contractors, Corzine and the advisory panel argue.

The top 25 pension earners on the list will collect more in salary this year than state Chief Justice Deborah Poritz or the $175,000 salary authorized for the governor, the draft shows.

Multiplied against the decades the part-time employees have run up in the retirement system, the patchwork paychecks have qualified at least 11 of the workers for retirement benefits exceeding $100,000 a year.

"There's 50 people earning the pension benefit of the chief justice," marveled Sen. William Gormley (R-Atlantic), a member of the legislative committee considering pension reform and the lawmaker who asked for the list of multiple-job holders. "The pension system, I don't think, is designed for people with incomes of $170,000 plus."

Gormley said he hoped publicizing the multiple paychecks would lead to reforms in the system.

For instance, he said, lawmakers might want to consider consolidating municipal judgeships so that someone like Powell would collect only one paycheck for her work across various communities.

But defenders of the multiple-paycheck system called it a cost-saver for communities.

"Most attorneys who are serving in the capacity of local judge or attorney are doing it at a lot lower rates than attorneys who are in private practice," said Richard P. Cushing, a lawyer who serves as municipal counsel and judge in four communities and for the State Insurance Fund. "If the municipality did not offer this benefit, the rates would be substantially higher."

Cushing authored a position paper defending multiple-job holding that was adopted Tuesday by the New Jersey Institute of Local Government Attorneys.

"The concept of a pension for government lawyers has been for years a way of attracting talented employees who will take less in pay up front with the assurance of other remuneration later on," the three-page paper states. "As a result, a pension, even if it is modest, may be of substantial assistance upon retirement."

New Jersey's payments into public retirement funds for teachers, state workers and other public employees soared this year to $1.1 billion, after years of deferrals. Municipal governments, too, have seen their payments into the public retirement systems skyrocket.

Among other changes, lawmakers have proposed converting the state retirement program to a 401(k)-type system, in which benefits are not guaranteed. Legislation also has been proposed to eliminate the advantage of cobbling together numerous jobs by requiring all pension participants to designate a single salaried position as the basis for their retirement calculations.

Bier and others said the current system actually benefits local taxpayers, because the salaries they draw from various government agencies must cover office expenses that full-time employees would charge to their government employers.

"I understand the concept of padding, but that doesn't apply," said Bier, whose various jobs have so far qualified him for an estimated $104,000 annual pension. "I've put in 29 years of public service, and in each of these authorities that you've mentioned, except for North Bergen, I've been with them for more than 10 years."

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