Spource: The Star Ledger -
As Gov. Chris Christie bangs the drum for a second round of pension reform in New Jersey, public officials and union leaders are bracing for another wave of public workers rushing to retire.
Employees in state and local government headed for the door in record numbers at the beginning of Christie’s first term, thanks in part to laws passed by the governor and state lawmakers asking public workers to pay a larger share of their health and pension costs. More than 20,000 retired in 2010, followed by 19,500 the next year.
After slowing the next two years, the pace of public worker retirements is picking up again, according to state Treasury Department figures.
A total of 11,916 employees are scheduled to retire through the end of this month — a nearly 9 percent spike from the same point in 2013. If the pace continues, about 17,000 may file papers by the end of the year. A total of 15,700 public workers retired last year.
The change comes as Christie gets ready to introduce further changes to the pension system, which is facing $40 billion in unfunded liabilities.
The Republican governor, a potential 2016 presidential candidate who rose to popularity partly because of his pension fights with public worker unions, said the previous changes didn’t go far enough. He has put curtailing the costs of public employee benefits at the top of his summer agenda, suggesting the state could go bankrupt without more action.
Some union leaders say more public workers may be planning to retire out of fear they could see their pensions and health benefits cut if they don’t get out now.
But Steve Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state teachers union, said he’s not convinced this year’s 9 percent increase in retirements was caused by Christie’s warnings, saying numbers fluctuate from year to year.
“They may be on the higher end of the range, but they’re certainly within the range,” he said.
Among public workers, retirements for teachers and non-uniformed government workers are both up 12 percent so far this year, while police and firefighter retirements are down 14 percent. Retirements for the State Police dropped from 145 to 83, the figures show.
In the decade before Christie was governor, public workers retired at a rate of 13,656 a year. Since he took office, the clip is at 17,602 — a 29 percent increase.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie’s office, stressed that “retirement numbers rise and fall year to year” and declined further comment.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, one of Christie’s Republican allies in the state Legislature, stressed that it’s possible the new reforms would only affect recently hired employees.
“The system as we know it, if we’re going to change it, it would be changed for people coming into the system,” Bramnick (R-Union) said. “I don’t think the fear is necessarily justified.”
Officials say that retirements have allowed local governments to avoid layoffs. But they also fear that more increases will further deplete workforces that are already short-staffed.
That, Colligan said, would hurt police forces that are “just recovering from the 2011 exodus” caused by the last pension reforms. “Now, I’m afraid we have a whole new group of people ready to leave,” he said.
The overall public labor force has dropped since Christie took office. As of June, preliminary federal data show New Jersey employs 563,300 workers in state and local government — 900 fewer than at this point last year and about 27,000 fewer than before Christie took office.
Dressel said those likely to retire are the ones with the most experience, holding top positions — clerks, tax collectors, police brass.
“Just this week, I heard of three towns looking for chief financial officers because of retirements,” he said. “It puts a strain on staffing levels. You’ve got to find experienced people to fill those jobs.”