Double Dipping, Family Favors & Padded Pensions

REPOSTED from April 2017:

Last week like many of you, I too, had to write the quarterly real estate tax check to my town. My property doesn’t have sidewalks. My town has a volunteer fire department and no police department. Our school has a declining population, and I pay separately to have my trash hauled. So where does the tax money go?

For way too long, a small group of politically connected insiders have gleefully run “we the taxpayers” off the rails of prosperity. It would appear that their only interest is what is beneficial for their friends, family and business associates. They have used quiet job postings and professional appointments to expand a patronage network, while disregarding the plight of the working families that support their tax supported schemes.

You don’t need an MBA in Business Management to see that local government has a real problem with crony politics and they have had it for a long time. Well qualified residents of Sussex County won’t even apply for job postings because somebody’s niece, nephew, girlfriend or son-in-law will swoop in at the last minute and take the job. Promotions are also affected in the same manner.

Family Favors & Insider Jobs

Long time Sussex County Freeholder Phil Crabb has a reputation for making promises he doesn’t keep. But not so to his family. He secured jobs for his sons at SCMUA and a struggling Sussex County Community College. He did this while acting in his official capacity as Freeholder. He also secured a position with full benefits for his business partner as a SCMUA Commissioner. This is the same partner with whom he jointly, and secretly holds commercial property in his home town of Franklin. He has never publicly revealed the business connection.  Phil also takes good care of himself, collecting family health benefits that effectively double his salary.

          

The Sussex County Sheriff Department alone has dozens employees with family connections. Hiring, firing and advancement are strangled because the patronage mill must continue to be primed.

Padding Pensions

We all watched the shifting drama played out in the papers two years ago as all of the county’s top management left at the same time. But not before they set up their situations and manipulated the freeholders into appointments of questionably qualified, internally posted appointees. All to ensure that the inside cronies would be taken care of.

One of those cronies is Former County Counsel Dennis McConnell. McConnell held his position for 25 years at a part-time salary of about $85,000 until 2012. At that point he used his influence with newly installed Freeholder Director Parker Space to gain a full time appointment to serve 3 years at more than double the salary of about $190,000 to pad his pension. He is now pensioned $73,000 for the rest of his life. A classic case of fleecing the taxpayer.

Double Dipping as a way of life

When Sheriff Mike Strada ran for office 7 years ago, he campaigned on a platform to stop the practice of double dipping. The previous Sheriff, Robert Untig had angered many by collecting on a public pension while he served. Strada was very much against that practice. He came out against the acceptance of pension payments while being publicly employed.

According to the New Jersey Herald story of November 3, 2010;

“In June, Strada mounted an impressive victory in the primary election against three other Republican candidates — including a corporal in the Sussex County sheriff’s office — by building on his 2007 recognition and riding a wave of populist anger over “double-dipping,” or collecting a public paycheck and pension at the same time.”

Below are the statewide sheriffs department figures for 2015.

DD-sheriffs-2015-sussex

Let’s look at how that is working out. It would appear that the Sheriff, Under-sheriffs and many others in the Sheriff’s Department haven’t lived up to that commitment, and are gaming and draining the system. Excuses are served up to explain that it is cheaper to hire an employee that doesn’t require pension system payments. That may be somewhat true, but that is not what the Sheriff promised.

Sussex County Surrogate Gary Chiusano

When Former Assemblyman Gary Chiusano stood up for pension sanity he was attacked and vilified by the public employee unions, but he was also sold out by the silence of his allies. We cannot continue a system that pays full pension benefits to retirees in their 40’s or 50’s, especially when they only contributed a fraction to their expected future payouts and health benefits. This includes police, fire, all government workers and teachers. The math does not work. Payouts should not begin until age 62, and health benefits for life must be abolished. If you remain working in a public job that pays more than $10,000, your pension payments should be deferred.

Sadly, the systemic abuse of the taxpayer doesn’t just appear in the pension system.

The position of Tax Assessor is an abusive system that must be addressed and must be reformed.  For instance, Scott Holzhauer is the tax assessor in three Sussex County municipalities; Newton, Franklin, Hardyston, as well as three out-of-county towns. That makes six in all. His combined, pensionable salary right now is $229,588. That means that he will collect a pension from part time positions larger than most executives receive in normal salaries, including benefits, for the rest of his life.

To be fair, Mr. Holzhauer is not the only one, and this is not a rarity. Municipal attorneys, building and code inspectors, as well as many other part time positions are not treated as one salary; rather they are allowed to string stipends together to amass pensionable salaries far greater than a single position would garner. What is particularly egregious to us is the fact that adding up the hours of these positions often far exceeds the possible hours that they are contracted to perform. This is just a small sampling of the most egregious cases in New Jersey:

Name Position Jobs Comb Salary County
Edward Kerwin Tax Assessor 8 $372k Som/Hunt
Roy Riggitano Sub Code 6 $287k Bergen
Damian Murray Mun. Judge 7 $281k Ocean
Stephen Gallagher Treas/Tax Assessor 4 $273 Ocean
Sal Bonaccorsi Tax Assessor 3 $267 Hudson
Scott Pezarras Tax Assessor 4 $255k Ocean
Patrick DeBlasio Tax Assessor 6 $251k Monmouth
Click above for Sussex salaries.

These loopholes cost the state pension system millions, while discouraging non-connected or independent contractors from applying. What on the surface, can appear to be a good deal for an individual department or community is a detriment to the system as a whole. We are continuously reminded of the massive pension shortfall that New Jersey must make up in the future. Government employees and the weak kneed press try to shift the blame and the liability to the public. The insistence that we need to pay more taxes is ludicrous.

To be fair, this abuse was probably not caused by the benefited employees; it was initiated, and continued, by bureaucratic attorneys and administrators and signed off by ambitious yet cowardly elected officials. A few years ago when a countywide tax assessor pilot program began, the assessors went wild in opposition. Surprised?

The big question is…who has the courage to tackle the real root of the problem, instead of passing the burden onto our already astronomical tax problem.

Our guess is no one.

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