Source: The Record -
Hackensack’s welfare director made headlines when she cut off public assistance to a homeless man who failed to report an $850 reward he earned for doing a good deed.
Agatha Toomey is one of a group of city employees who richly benefited from rules allowing them to take payments for unused sick time accrued over their careers.
“I’ve had high-level discussion with legislative leaders and the front office and we’re confident that this (sick-time reform) will be done in the upcoming legislative session,” Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande said.
The payouts were part of generous benefit packages written into public-employee contracts years ago, allowing sick days to be carried over and cashed in. Toomey cashed in $93,000, while some retiring city police supervisors netted more than $300,000 under the policy.
The payments and the fiscal problems they engender are a long-standing issue in Hackensack. But they are by no means unique to Bergen’s county seat. The payouts have led some towns and cities like Hackensack to borrow millions for the payments, easing the immediate financial burden but imposing added cost on taxpayers who did not benefit from the services of the recipients. While most towns now cap sick-time payouts for recent hires, they’re still facing liabilities that will weigh on property taxes for years.
Governor Christie has taken aim at the sick leave benefit, but his mandated 2 percent cap on property tax increases included a loophole that still allows towns and cities to borrow money at interest for pension costs.
Towns and cities statewide face payments of more than $1 billion for employees’ unused sick and vacation days; Hackensack’s liability alone is more than $15 million. While state lawmakers have floated bills to curb them, they haven’t agreed on the terms of reform. Meanwhile, lawmakers say nothing is stopping towns and cities from renegotiating contracts on their own.
Even though most towns and cities cap or eliminate sick-day payouts, that typically doesn’t apply to longtime employees who got the benefit when they were hired.
In a January 2012 survey by the New Jersey League of Municipalities, 89 percent of responding towns reported they limited the amount of sick time that may be cashed out at retirement — but only 10 percent applied those limits to all their workers.
Toomey, the head of Human Services, got a $93,000 payout in February 2011 for unused sick leave when she was 53. Toomey, as an employee who works without a contract, is permitted to cash out days with no age requirement, Lo Iacono said.
It was Toomey’s payout — after she denied benefits to Brady — that prompted The Record to take a closer look at sick payouts. Toomey said Brady broke rules by failing to notify her office of new income within 10 days, after police gave him back the money he turned in — a good deed that earned him a commendation from the City Council.
The Record also found that former police chief Ken Zisa had been paid $94,000 with funds from a $4.7 million bond ordinance that was supposed to be dedicated to retirees. He did not retire, but had been suspended without pay after he was criminally charged with official misconduct, insurance fraud, conspiracy and witness tampering. He was convicted in May 2012 and sentenced to five years in jail, but remains on house arrest while his appeal is pending.
Zisa was also sued by more than 20 police officers for allegedly coercing them to support his and his friends’ political campaigns by intimidation and retaliation. Other police officers who benefited from the bond ordinance were also facing lawsuits, including Sgt. Anthony Trezza, who was sued with Zisa in a civil rights case. Retired police captains Robert Wright and Dennis Cinque were also sued with Zisa in connection with alleged sexual harassment — a case that was later settled for $150,000.
Also on the list was retired Deputy Police Chief Frank Zisa Jr., Ken Zisa’s brother, whose former girlfriend won a $2.4 million settlement from a lawsuit in which she alleged Ken Zisa retaliated against her because she refused sexual advances by him and Frank Zisa Jr.
All the officers received six-figure payouts ranging from $201,515 to $308,131.
That $4.7 million bond issue is costing the average homeowner about $255 over five years, said Tammy Zucca, Hackensack’s chief financial officer.
The city continues to pay thousands as employees cash out one by one; former interim police chief Tomas Padilla got a payout of nearly $150,000 for unused sick and vacation days earlier this year.
The governor’s 2 percent cap on municipal property tax levy increases has made it hard for some cities to afford benefit buyouts. But when he mandated the cap, Christie also permitted the bonding that has allowed many of the places to circumvent the cap.
“You’re bonding, reducing other programs to pay for sick leave buyouts which we believe is objectionable,” said William Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities. “It’s a drain on property taxes — these large payouts — and it’s something that should be addressed.”
The hodgepodge of benefits from union to union, contract to contract, and town to town is a disservice to local government, some officials say. But state reform appears to be at an impasse.
Christie wants a complete elimination of sick pay buyouts for future employment and a reduction for those who have already accrued days. In 2010, he vetoed a bill that would have capped unused sick time at $15,000 — a ceiling that has been in place for state workers since 1986. In 2011, he conditionally vetoed a bill that would have limited the payout for unused sick time to $7,500, saying the cap should be zero.
“The governor does not see any room for compromise on this, because it makes no sense,” said Christie spokesman Colin Reed. “Zero means zero for accumulated sick leave.”
A group of Assembly Republicans, meanwhile, is pushing a bill that would eliminate sick leave payouts for new hires and freeze payments to those facing work-related criminal charges. Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande, R-Monmouth, a sponsor of the bill, said she believes the state is on the cusp of reform despite past disagreements.
“I’ve had high-level discussion with legislative leaders and the front office and we’re confident that this will be done in the upcoming legislative session,” she said.
She declined to say who was involved in those conversations or whether any deals were being made behind the scenes, but said there is “great optimism from both Republican and Democratic parties.”
Municipal managers are working to phase out the perks, Dressel said, but still are paying for employees who already had banked sick days.