In what could become one of the first tests of the Fulop administration, the city will have to find $4.5 million to $5.4 million to cover the retirement benefits owed to at least 27 Jersey City Police Department (JCPD) top brass who plan to retire between June 1 and the end of the year.
As first disclosed by the Reporter on May 20, several senior members of the JCPD plan to retire from the force before Mayor-elect Steven Fulop takes the helm on July 1, and several more plan to retire before the end of the summer. Two others plan to leave by the end of the year.
In total, 27 deputy chiefs, captains, sergeants, detectives, and police officers have filed paperwork to retire. This number also includes Police Chief Thomas Comey, who plans to retire in June.
The heftiest retirement payouts – for unused vacation and sick leave – will come in June, at a time when the city still does not have an approved municipal budget for 2013, and at a time when there is a transition taking place between the outgoing administration of Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy and the new Fulop administration.
The makeup of the new City Council also will not be determined until after a runoff election is held on June 11. And it is unclear whether Fulop will be allied with the council majority or not.
Regardless of the outcome of the runoff, the city will have to come up with between $2.1 million and $2.4 million to cover the total terminal leave benefits of the June retirees, and another $1.4 million to $1.7 million in July. The total retirement benefit costs for the people planning to retire in August come to $1 million to $1.3 million.
Having recently gone on record opposing bonding to cover terminal leave costs takes an option off the table for the new mayor that his administration may need.
The Fulop administration will have to look for significant cost savings in the city budget to offset the payouts, particularly since the mayor-elect has gone on record as being opposed to bonding to cover such expenses.
While an angry Fulop last week expressed outrage at the mass retirements, they should not come as a surprise. As a mayoral candidate Fulop campaigned on the promise that he would reorganize the JCPD and he was often critical of its top leadership.
“Why would they stay? Fulop did nothing but criticize their work,” said one senior Healy administration official last week. “He has made it clear he doesn’t want them in the department.”
Fulop and City Councilman At-large Rolando Lavarro Jr., a Fulop ally, last year called for an audit of the JCPD to determine if police resources were being used to their maximum efficiency, and they have questioned the accuracy of recent crime statistics showing that crime decreased from 2012 to 2013. (The JCPD audit was voted down by the City Council majority which, at the time, was allied with Healy.) The pair has also called for increased foot patrols, as has Ward F City Councilwoman Diane Coleman, another Fulop ally.
In City Council caucus meetings, Mayor-elect Fulop has also taken issue with the large number of unused sick and vacation days that have been accrued by Comey and Deputy Chief Peter Nalbach, another JCPD senior officer who is planning to retire in June. Given the financial hardship their terminal leave benefits will have on the city, Fulop has suggested that, if they were true leaders, they would voluntarily cap their benefits to lessen the burden on city taxpayers.
Bonding off the table?
Terminal leave is any unused sick and vacation leave that public workers accrue during their years of employment. In many municipalities senior employees who have been on the job for 20 years or more can sometimes have hundreds of unused sick days by the time they are ready to retire. When employees are owed payouts for their unused days, these payouts can top $100,000 or more.
The trend now, including in Jersey City, is to cap or eliminate such terminal leave payments, and as a result, many municipal employees who have a lot of time accrued are choosing to retire.
Before the surge in retirements, the city had been spending about $4.5 million annually on terminal leave benefits for its retirees, according to Business Administrator Jack Kelly. By 2011, however, this amount had ballooned to $9.5 million.
To address the problem, the city has occasionally chosen to borrow money rather than levy taxes to meet its terminal leave commitments. Under state law, these commitments can be financed over a period of five years.
But in December Fulop and his allies on the City Council successfully defeated a Healy administration plan to bond to cover $9.5 million in terminal leave costs for recent city retirees, an indication the new administration may try to cover the recent JCPD retirements costs through other means.
Yet, having recently gone on record opposing bonding to cover such costs takes an option off the table for the new mayor that his administration may need, which may explain Fulop’s anger over the mass retirements.
“The fact that Chief Comey and his friends in the police department are putting in for retirement just days after the mayor lost the election demonstrates how the Healy police department is more concerned with their cushy office jobs than protecting the public,” Fulop said in a press statement issued last week. “We have a public safety crisis and yet these officers are putting their own personal financial interests ahead of public safety and certainly ahead of the taxpayers. I am beyond outraged. I am disgusted.”
Fulop said he intends to audit every single dollar requested by the retiring officers.
“Let me be clear to Comey and friends that I intend to scrutinize every penny requested before Jersey City taxpayers shell out any money,” Fulop said. “Some of these officers that are requesting taxpayer payouts are saying that in 30 years of policing, they never took a single sick or leave day, which is just not realistic or believable. I will not allow these officers to rip off the taxpayers. Jersey City’s overburdened families deserve no less.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.