Verrelli Bill Makes Alterations to PFRS

Verrelli

A bill which would allow police and fire chief members of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS) of New Jersey to stay on until 67, instead of the mandatory retirement age of 65, advanced out of the Assembly State and Local Government Committee on Monday.

The bill, A2158, was introduced by Chairman Anthony Verrelli.  Offering opposition to the bill were Robert Nixon, of the NJ State Police Benevolent Association, and Sean Lavin, of the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police.  There was no presented testimony in favor of the bill during the proceedings.

“This this is a bad piece of legislation,” Nixon said.  “Over the course of the many years that I’ve represented the state PBA in Trenton, we’ve seen this bill come up over a number of different sessions. At the end of the day, it was always held when finally the rubber meets the road. Bills like this are usually driven by one or a few police chiefs who feel that policing simply will not exist without them if they’re forced to retire. It is driven more by ego than it is by any practical need by any police department or fire department in the state of New Jersey.”

Nixon said that the legislation “sends a very bad message” to police rank and file because it gives their chiefs preferential treatment where everyone else has to retire at age 65.  He dismissed the notion that police chiefs needed to stay longer in their departments for ease of transitions and said that any department which would have a problem functioning with the departure of its chief is one whose chief did a poor job in training and preparing his department.

“The PFRS age requirements exist for a reason,” Nixon said, “and every law enforcement officer and every firefighter must retire by the age of 65.  That is a more than reasonable number of years considering that many officers join a police department when they’re 18, 19, 20 years old, and very few even get past their early 50s before they retire.  There’s a reason for that.  But that reason doesn’t exclude police chiefs in any way, shape, or form.  The PBA’s position is that that age requirement must apply to everyone equally. Providing this benefit only to chiefs of police differentiates them from the officers they lead, and it leads to a number of problems.”

Among the complaints Nixon had were that extending a chief’s time inhibits promotions within a department.  That, in turn, leads to an exodus of qualified personnel.  “It’s going to lead to a brain drain within your agency and policing, especially with the anti-police movement over the last couple of years.  Then on top of that, the anti-collective bargaining movement that happened in the Christie administration led to a mass retirement of senior officers. What this is going to do, especially in smaller departments, is lead those captains, lieutenants, and sergeants to leave when the normal transition would lead them up the ranks.  You have a chief that knows ‘Well, I’m 52 but I can stay on to 67, so why on earth would I ever leave this job?’”

Nixon said that stagnation was another problem which follows having chiefs remaining in their offices too long.   “Things are just going to remain the same, because no one will ever have a chance to see things differently.  That will impact morale in a department, especially if you have a bad chief, or stubborn chief, or chief who has an axe to grind. It’s going to tell the rank and file that the chief is somehow different from them, because they’re forced to retire to certain age, but the chief is going to get another break.”

The concern Nixon expressed on behalf of the PBA also included the feeling that if 67 was the cap now, there was nothing which would prevent it from rising to 68, 69, or 70, or to remove the retirement age entirely.

Lavin was next invited to speak by Chairman Verrelli.  “I have to concur with all the statements that my colleague, Mr. Nixon, put forward. But I’m going to bring some other practical concerns I don’t think this bill recognizes.  As the executive director, also the Labor Council and dealing with contracts, most of our contracts have specific provisions made and built into them for the age of 65 mandatory retirement.”  Lavin said the FOP opposed the bill because there had not been enough consideration as to what adding more years of the most expensive salaries would have on the pension system.  “How will that impact a pension fund that is not fully funded? You’re talking if the average increase is 2% to 4% a year that they get for two years more, what are they pulling from that pension fund for how many years?”

Lavin said that they had not conducted an analysis from the Pension Board to see how it would drain an already depleted pension fund.  To this point, Assemblyman Edward Thomson said it would cost “a lot.”

“Every one of our contracts has a Social Security provision,” Lavin said, “where the medical benefits offered by the town or the county or the state becomes secondary or a Part V if you will.  Social Security becomes Part A that’s not envisioned in this legislation… coupled with that is workers compensation. If they’re collecting Social Security and they’re still working, and the health care is not their primary, Social Security is, what is the offset on Social Security to workers comp? As we know now, on the workers comp insurance for a town, if an officer is injured, they have the insurance—and the insurance pays a certain amount of that money. That’s why you have workers comp insurance.  Every business has it, every town has it. We have no analysis over how that will affect the Workers Compensation piece.”

The reason he mentioned this was because he said there are many police chiefs who will do the work of lower level officers—patrols, answering domestic violence calls, traffic stops, and so on.  “At 65 years old, is that really someone that you want running into a burning building? If my house is on fire, do I want a guy 67 years old running in, or that 26-year-old person, just out of the academy in very good shape? I want the 26-year-old, there’s a reason for that. The incidences of injury—the cost to have these—the chief out there really negates the whole purpose of the bill because if they’re hurt, they can’t do the chief’s work. A lot of these things are secondary and tertiary considerations that this bill does not address, and I think it needs to be addressed, I think it needs to be looked at.”

For these reasons and others Lavin described, the Fraternal Order of Police, like the PBA, was in opposition to the bill.  Lavin said that the Professional Firefighters Association was also in agreement with the FOP.

After the statements were delivered, Verrelli responded.  “I understand what everybody said, you bring up valid points.  The bill is permissive only for the municipality or fire district. They don’t have to be required to participate. I understand what you brought up. But the way I look at it, today, workers are routinely working longer. But the pension aside and everything, in New Jersey, we have judges who work till 70.  Then federal government members of Congress and justices of the Supreme Court, they serve a lifetime term if they can.”

Verrelli was not overly concerned about chiefs potentially hurt on the job while doing patrols and more on-the-ground policework.  “Chiefs are mostly routinely serving administrative roles and every once in a while they have to go out there. I understand the shortage of law enforcement personnel, so I get that, too. But when they’re out there, the roles are limited in physical requirements anyway. I’m taking everything into consideration that everyone has said.”

Verrelli said that he wanted the bill to pass but was open to continued discussion and dialogue.  There were no further comments offered and the bill was put to a vote where it passed.

The vote fell along party lines with Republican Assemblymen Thomson and Simonsen voting no and Democratic Assemblymembers Jaffer, Swain, and Verrelli voting yes.

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