The days of being a public servant with decent pay, job security and benefits are gone, say police officers, firefighters and teachers who are seeing red over a speech Gov. Christie made in Bergen County this week.
“Fairness and shared sacrifice”
“He was able to state his case, rest his case, and now, has worked with our allies in government to sentence our pension system and financial stability to death,” a North Jersey officer said.
“I’m seriously considering hanging up the badge and going into the private sector,” said a local officer who just got a Master’s degree.
“If they get away with this, the sky is the limit to what they can change next time,” another said. “We’ve all gotten taken for suckers.”
During a speech in Paramus on Thursday, Christie said the only way to pay the state’s health care bill is to significantly boost insurance premiums for hundreds of thousands of police, firefighters and teachers.
Christie’s plan requires public workers to pay for a third of their individual plan. They now pay 1.5 percent. Using teachers as an example, he said, one who makes $60,000 would go from paying $900 a year to $7,333 for the same plan.
Christie said that would stem the $4.3 billion a year paid from state coffers for current and retired public servants.
What it will also do is force many to choose plans with higher deductibles and co-pays. Those plans also limit the pool of providers.
“Have you ever noticed that he never addresses cutting the costs of the health care system itself?” said Richard Scalzo, a retired Secaucus police captain. “One of the biggest reasons that the costs are high is that so many use it without any payment at all. Those with insurance are taking up the slack.”
Citing “fairness and shared sacrifice,“ Christie also wants to roll back a 9-percent pension increase granted a decade ago and require all public servants to pay in 8.5 percent toward retirement. This, he said, would chop $34 billion worth of unfunded liability in half over three decades.
For the state’s public workers, it amounts to a breached agreement.
Forty years ago, a police officer or firefighter made roughly $7,500 a year — double the minimum wage at the time. But as the economy exploded, and the cost of living swelled, towns found themselves begging for public servants.
Legislators in Trenton actually had to pass a law in 1984 setting the minimum salary of public employees at $18,500, about 2.5 times minimum wage.
They also began requiring police officers and firefighters to contribute 8.5 percent of their salaries into a ‘secure’ pension fund, “with the promise that the money would be there when [we] retired, said Mount Olive Police Sgt. Mike Pocquat.
Municipalities originally were mandated to match. But then-Governor Christie Whitman began drawing down from what had been a pension fund that topped out at $100 billion to pay for tax cuts and to balance the state budget, which gave “the false appearance that all was fiscally sound under her watch,” Pocquat wrote, in an open letter to Christie ( See : Veteran cop takes on Christie, draws raves ).
Whitman then signed a law that allowed municipalities to duck the match. Before long, they owed $2 billion.
“The state gambled for years, relying heavily on the returns from the stock market to cover the missing funds,” Pocquat said. In the process, he said, “the public was lulled into a sense of false financial security.”
When the bill finally came due, Pocquat wrote, police and firefighters were handy scapegoats. And now Christie, after inheriting a fiscal crisis, “has again found the same victim: Your public employees.”
Today’s public servants average roughly $75,000 — or five times minimum wage. For many, the risks have been worth the reward.
But they see what looks like a rollback to a time when it wasn’t worth it. They’re concerned, uncertain and angry.
“This tough guy attitude might play well for awhile with some that can’t think for themselves,” Scalzo added. “The taxes in the state are high, no doubt about it. Yet he seems to think destroying the public services are the way to save money.
“Residents had better get prepared for severely reduced services.”
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