One of the more prevalent practices of government is paying employees for not working, or more accurately, for sick and vacation time they never took.
That happens throughout the state and in many cases, is permissible.
But not always.
The New Jersey Comptroller’s Office has just discovered after an audit that Rockaway Township “allowed employee leave payments of $167,093 in violation of state law or township policy.”
That was just one of the problems the audit found. Others had to do with not properly obtaining health insurance coverage and spending twice for some employee prescription coverage, thereby costing taxpayers about $4.5 million over three years.
The audit detailed the problem and also came up with this stunning discovery.
The aforementioned $167,000 that was improperly spent was just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The audit also found that township practices allowed “five senior police employees, including the police chief, (to) have accumulated $1.17 million in unused holiday-related vacation leave, an average of approximately $234,000 per employee.”
The particulars of Rockaway Township aside, none of this is new.
Chris Christie knew that.
He tried to cap massive payments to retiring employees – something he called “boat checks” – with some success.
The Legislature did adopt a law in 2010 capping these payments for employees at $15,000 per worker, but that was only for new hires.
However, as the recent audit suggests, laws and regulations may not mean much if municipal officials ignore them.
What’s going on?
You would think town officials would be under pressure to keep property taxes low, so wouldn’t that prompt them to rein in unjust spending? Paying retiring employees for vacation time they did not take eight years ago certainly seems unjust to any reasonable person.
That may be generally true, but something else frequently goes on. That “something else” is that many municipal officials see their employees as part of the “same team,”
That may not sound bad, but such familiarity very often encourages officials to overlook, or just not look too closely at, such payments. That’s just reality.
How to stop it?
The obvious way is for elected officials to stop it themselves. But to do that, you need officials who are not part of the team, or “the club” running the show. This can be a political club, of course, but make no mistake, winking at terminal leave payments is a bipartisan endeavor. It happens in Democratic Hudson County and as we see, in Republican Morris County.
This will only end if voters elect enough officials to their local governing bodies who care about genuine reform as opposed to maintaining the status quo.
Easier said than done.
Unless that happens, we must always remember a 2020 report on the practice by the State of New Jersey Commission of Investigation. Its title was:
“The Beat Goes On And On.”