Thursday, November 27, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

N.J. towns' sick-pay bills are sickening

Gov. Christie says local governments and school boards are on the hook for millions, maybe billions, of dollars in accrued sick-time payments.

N.J. towns' sick-pay bills are sickening

Gov. Christie should let the towns and school boards fix their sick-pay problems by using Cherry Hill as a model. (Mel Evans / Associated Press)
Gov. Christie should let the towns and school boards fix their sick-pay problems by using Cherry Hill as a model. (Mel Evans / Associated Press)

Gov. Christie says local governments and school boards are on the hook for millions, maybe billions, of dollars in accrued sick-time payments.

As communities struggle to pay police and teachers, the governor’s point that the payments are costly and inappropriate is on target.

Many local-government employees can bank unused sick, vacation, personal, and compensatory days and cash them out when they retire — sometimes receiving six-figure payments.

“Boat payments,” Christie calls them, because the lump-sum payments might be used to buy a boat, maybe even some tackle and a fish finder.

Sick time should be used for sick time. It shouldn’t be considered an entitlement to be saved, carried over, and magically converted into a retirement bonus.

But it’s at the local level that action should be taken to stop abuse of this humane benefit, which recognizes that people should not have to forfeit income or even their jobs when they become sick or injured.

What the governor can do is lead by example, not just with his words. He talks forcefully about shared sacrifices to get New Jersey on a path to fiscal health. So, it is difficult to swallow the medicine Christie is prescribing to solve the sick-time problem.

He wants the Legislature to wipe out the bonuses. His prescription ignores the root cause.

Christie’s solution ignores that the sick-pay bonuses were negotiated and that union and non-union employees had to give up something in negotiations with local governments and school districts to receive them. If the employees give up the sick-pay bonuses, they have a right to expect something in return.

But Christie isn’t alone in prescribing a heavy-handed Trenton remedy for a local problem. Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt (D., Camden) proffered a bill to cap the payments at $15,000. The measure passed with bipartisan support, but Christie vetoed it in December. So Lampitt has come back proposing a $7,500 payout cap.

Instead of doing that, towns should look at how Cherry Hill took care of this problem years ago. The township bargained an end to the payouts for new union workers in 1987, according to mayoral aide Dan Keashen. And five years ago, Mayor Bernie Platt ended the practice for non-union workers.

Benefits were grandfathered for employees who were in place at the time of the changes, which means Cherry Hill still has almost $600,000 in deferred sick pay benefits that must be paid in the coming years. Last year, for example, Cherry Hill taxpayers paid a retiring police chief $107,000 — which can buy a very nice boat, indeed.

But the fact that Cherry Hill is phasing out the payments is proof that other towns can do it, too.

Christie’s solution takes responsibility for fixing this problem away from the very people who created it — local elected officials and public employees. Doing the hard work for them makes them weak and dependent on Trenton for solutions to local problems that are best solved at home.

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