PATERSON, NJ – The city’s plan to borrow $1.65 million for severance payments for 17 retiring firefighters and police officers includes more than $600,000 to cover the cost of something called terminal leave, according to municipal documents.
The city’s contracts with its fire and police unions provide veteran employees with a lump sum “terminal leave” payment for 720 hours – or the equivalent of 90 eight-hour days – when they retire, a benefit that other municipal workers do not receive.
But as Paterson’s financial problems continue to produce higher taxes for fewer services, some City Council members say it’s time for the city rethink the terminal leave benefit.
“It’s strangling our city,” said Councilman William McKoy. “We’re paying out this money and not getting any service in return for it. We’re a cash-strapped city. Clearly, it’s time we put an end to it.”
“It’s the red and blue parachute,” said Councilman Kenneth Morris, comparing terminal leave to the so-called “golden parachutes” given to departing executives in the provide sector. “It’s not tied to performance. It’s not tied to productivity,” Morris added.
Terminal leave isn’t something city officials can eliminate unilaterally. The benefit has been part of the city’s union contracts for well more than a decade, officials said. The next police and fire contracts currently are in negotiation. But it’s clear the unions don’t want to give up their terminal leave.
“Terminal leave is a benefit that takes into account the dangerous conditions we face in the line of duty,” said Carlos Pagan, president of the firefighters’ union. “Firefighters’ life expectancy is shorter than that of the average person. We’re three times more likely to die in the line of duty. It’s the most dangerous job in the country.”
Over the years, 27 Paterson firefighters have died from job-related causes, Pagan said. “I think that speaks for itself,” he said.
Alex Cruz, the president of the union for Paterson’s rank-and-file police officers, did not return calls seeking his comments for this story.
McKoy said the terminal leave benefits were created many years ago, when the salaries paid to police officers and firefighters did not address the demands and dangers of their jobs. “That’s no longer the case,” said the councilman. At present, the vast majority of Paterson employees who make six-figure salaries work as firefighters or police officers, according to payroll records.
Under the pending plan to borrow $1.65 million, about $500,000 is for police officers’ severance payments and about $750,000 for firefighters’ packages. About half the hours for which they would be paid are generated by the contracts’ terminal leave provisions, according to city documents. The largest of the retirees’ terminal leave payments would be for about $67,000 and the lowest for about $39,000, according to information in city documents.
Although other city employees do not get terminal leave, they are allowed to get paid for limited amounts of unused sick time when they leave the municipal payroll. Paterson’s police officers and firefighters get unlimited sick time under their contracts and do not get paid for accrued sick days.
Terminal leave is benefit that’s fairly common in police and fire contracts in New Jersey. But the terms of the benefit vary from town to town. Paterson’s terminal leave of 90 days is more generous than what’s offered in some places and less generous than others.
For example, the town of Princeton limits the amount of terminal leave it gives to its police officers to 360 hours, or the equivalent of 45 eight-hour days. Kenilworth gives police retirees a maximum of two terminal leave days’ pay for each year of service. An officer in Kenilworth would have to work 45 years before getting the amount of terminal leave offered to Paterson police. In its most recent contract, Kenilworth included a provision eliminating terminal leave for any police officer hired from 2013 onward, according to the contract.
But Hoboken police officers get a terminal leave benefit that surpasses that in Paterson. Their contract provides for 150 days of terminal leave pay if they retire after 30 years. And Egg Harbor Township in South Jersey gives police officers who retire with 16 or more years of service the equivalent of 220 days of terminal leave.
The New Jersey State Commission on Investigation issued a report on alleged waste and abuse in local government employee benefits that addressed terminal leave. “The Commission recommends that terminal leave, in whatever form it may take, be eliminated for all public employees and expresses its support for the intent of pending legislation to achieve that goal,” reads the document.
But that report was issued in 2009 and nothing has been done yet. McKoy and Morris said the Christie administration should push for reform on terminal leave, especially considering the hardline the governor has taken on teachers’ benefits.
Morris also is calling for Paterson to revise the way Paterson measures vacation, sick, holiday and comp time for municipal employees. Morris says the city ought to combine all those categories in one group called “benefit time.” Under his plan, Morris said the city would place a limit of the number of “benefit” days employees could carry over from one year to the next. That way, Morris said, the city could better manage the cost of severance payouts.
The current plan to borrow $1.65 million for the city’s police and fire retirees would boost the four-year total cost of such payments to about $11 million.
From The Paterson Press