In a report released last week by the State of New Jersey Commission of Investigation, several municipalities were flagged for giving their municipal employees benefits that they said were examples of “waste and abuse” during harsh economic times.
The nearly 50-page report identified Union City, Hoboken, and West New York for having excessive employee perks and/or retirement benefits.
Local mayors said last week that those perks were part of contracts negotiated during past administrations, and can’t be changed until those contracts are negotiated again.
Union City Mayor Brian Stack said that negotiations on the new employee contracts are under way in his town, and that the “day off for Christmas shopping” perk for municipal employees should come out.
The report identified Hoboken, Union City, and West New York as having wasteful spending benefit practices.
City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
According to the report, “In Union City, all civilian municipal employees receive one day’s leave at full pay every year for Christmas shopping,” stated the report. “As stated explicitly in the contract between the city and the Union City Employees Association, ‘each permanent employee shall have one personal day as a Christmas Shopping Day preceding the Christmas holidays’. . . .”’
The report continued: “This is in addition to five other personal days, 16 paid holidays – including a half-day each on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve – and, depending on length of service with the city, between 10 and 25 vacation days annually.”
The report went on to say that Union City municipal employees received payment for not taking sick days off, and also got bonuses if they used only one or two sick days in a year.
And after they retire, they can get compensation for those days they didn’t use.
The report stated: “In Union City, civilian employees qualify for a $200 cash stipend for using no sick leave in a year, $150 for using only one sick day and $100 for using just two sick days.”
The West New York Police Department was criticized for allowing paid time off to employees who participated in baptisms and other forms of religious events.
“Meanwhile, police officers in West New York receive time off not only for weddings but also for Baptisms, Confirmations, and First Holy Communions, provided they take an active role in the ceremony,” read the report.
The report noted that a similar privilege appears in the contract for the Hoboken Police Department.
A lot to say about Hoboken
In fact, the report had a lot to say about the Hoboken Police Department.
It first explained, “Over the past several years, Hoboken has been mired in a financial crisis that has forced it to lay off workers, freeze hiring, cut services and boost local property taxes by nearly 80 percent. In 2008, the city failed to adopt a municipal budget and was placed under the supervision of a state monitor.
“Against this troubled backdrop, however, the city nonetheless paid more than $7.3
million in cash to retiring employees in exchange for accrued leave between 2004 and 2009, pursuant to the terms of city personnel policies and negotiated contracts. The total payout was about evenly divided between unused vacation time and so-called ‘terminal’ leave.”
The report noted that the combined payout from terminal leave and unused vacation day redemption can’t exceed the employee’s last year of pay, but that the payouts are often close or equal to a year’s pay.
The one exception, they say, is the retirement of Hoboken Police Chief Carmen LaBruno two summers ago. LaBruno left after a scandal involving his department, and was paid more than his last annual salary.
“LaBruno agreed to retire in 2008 under the terms of a separation agreement in which the city awarded him a lump sum of $350,000, including $125,000 in accrued unused vacation leave, $150,000 in terminal leave and $75,000 in unused accumulated compensatory time,” the report states. “A confidentiality clause in the agreement cloaks this information from the general public. LaBruno’s final salary as Police Chief was $210,794.”
The report noted that the police "also qualify variously for a mix of special leave benefits, including days off as an incentive for not taking sick leave, time off for donating blood and personal days off for private events, such as weddings and baptisms."
The report also cited an already controversial $350,000 retirement payout two years ago to Police Chief Carmen LaBruno.
The city’s new mayor, Dawn Zimmer, just took office last month. Right now, Zimmer’s administration and state-appointed Fiscal Monitor Judy Tripodi is negotiating new contracts with the city’s employees, as well as with the police and fire unions.
Local mayors noted that the benefits were negotiated by past officials.
“The holiday shopping day privilege was negotiated as part of a contract by a previous administration,” said Union City Mayor Brian Stack through his spokesman Mark Albiez. “Currently, Union City is in the process of re-negotiating the municipal contract to put an end to this practice, as we continue to take actions that reflect fiscal responsibility, such as reducing the payroll when necessary and terminating non-essential services. Government must seek ways to conserve and ensure that taxes remain stable while providing adequate services.”
“A lot of this is reviewing procedures and contracts that have been given out throughout the years through the bargaining process,” said West New York Mayor Silverio “Sal” Vega last week at a swearing in meeting of new police director Albert Bringa. “Obviously some of these issues have to be negotiated out of the contracts, but many of them won’t even be able to be entertained until those contracts are up.”
Vega then added: “None of that language has been placed in contracts during my tenure as mayor, but we are looking at that report. And if in any way we can change some of those issues, we will.”
The state report went on to say, “Just as there is no state law or regulation in New Jersey that prohibits exorbitant payouts and perks for local public employees, there is no law or regulation that explicitly authorizes and shields excessive benefits, either.”
However, it did commend the municipalities of Flemington, Morris County, Point Pleasant, Teaneck, and Vineland for their efforts toward fiscal responsibility when it came to providing employee benefits.
The report also went on the make seven recommendations to improve the situation which included establishing standards for local government employee practices, setting uniform limits on employee leave, and eliminating terminal leave.
Terminal leave is when an employee about to retire accumulates enough time off that allows them to take weeks and even months off work right before retiring, while still being paid the full salary.
Melissa Rappaport may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org