Home>Highlight>Bill expanding retirement benefits eligibility for police, fire officials advances in Assembly

A Union City police vehicle. (Photo: Seth Granville)

Bill expanding retirement benefits eligibility for police, fire officials advances in Assembly

By Nikita Biryukov, February 24 2021 5:32 pm

The Assembly Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would allow the people enrolled in the Police and Fire Retirement System to retire an receive 50% of their final pay in pension payments after 20 years on the job regardless of their age.

The measure, which was opposed by the New Jersey League of Municipalities and the New Jersey Association of Counties, carries a potentially hefty price tag.

A fiscal estimate drafted by the Office of Legislative Services said the bill could increase the state’s retirements by as much as $413.6 million per year if all 6,881 eligible local and state officials enrolled in PFRS took the state up on its offer.

The actual payment would likely be far lower, increasing only by about $6.9 million for each percentage point increase in the retirement rate of police and fire officials.

Police unions support the measure. Representatives from both the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association and the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police testified in its favor, charging the benefit would save the state money because 20-year retirees would be ineligible for health benefits and would be replaced by staff paid a lower salary.

Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) doubted the latter claim, saying he expected departments to fill empty positions, awarding those promoted with salary increases.

“My experience locally is that when a senior official in fire or police or wherever leaves due to age, leaves for whatever reason, their position someone else is promoted, and someone else is promoted, and someone else is promoted,” he said. “A patrol officer becomes a sergeant. A sergeant becomes a lieutenant, a lieutenant a captain and so on.”

Some of the panel’s lawmakers bemoaned what they saw as a shaky fiscal estimate from OLS.

“I know you don’t want us to beat up on OLS, but it is kind of difficult to do our jobs when we get these willy-nilly numbers,” Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Denville) said. “I would think that we could get a better job done for us before we have to make a decision like this.”

Estimating the cost of the change to the retirement program, which effectively removes a requirement that a police officer or firefighter be at least 55 years old for 25 months after the bill is signed into law, is difficult because its cost is pegged to the rate of retirements, which could be affected by the bill.

Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Newark), who chairs the chamber’s budget committee, defended OLS.

“I work with OLS tremendously, especially when it comes to budget. These are not willy-nilly numbers,” she said. “They have a hard task to do. They get a bill. Their focus is just analyzing what’s clearly on the bill.”

Each of the committee’s members backed the bill save Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris Plains), who abstained because of the uncertainty around its cost.

It’s due for a full vote at Monday’s Assembly session. If it clears that vote — that’s likely — it’ll go to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk, having already won approval in a 38-0 Senate vote.

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