Disagreement Over Changes to Police, Fire Pensions

By Briana Vannozzi

“I’m going to ask you personally to not vote on this today. Give it more time. I don’t think we have enough information,” said Anthony Tarantino, Newark fire captain and president of the Newark Fire Officers Union.

Lawmakers seemed put off by the infighting among police and fire representatives over the bill to transform their retirement system. The Assembly Appropriations Committee today heard testimony about the plan to transfer management of their pension fund away from the state to a separately run board of trustees — a style that’s been successful in other states. As the president of the Newark Fire Officers Union put it, being in the room felt like a feud between the Hatfields and McCoys.

“They’re just basically saying, ‘Give it to us and we’ll work it out later.’ I don’t know. I mean, 28 years I’ve invested my money into this pension system. I’m a little afraid of that,” Tarantino said.

“Let me speak on behalf of the firefighters I represent and the police officers that Pat and Bob represent. We are absolutely not happy with the way New Jersey has been being a steward of our pension fund. I would not be sitting here today if we were remotely happy with the way things have been going,” said Ed Donnelly, president of the New Jersey State Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association.

The dispute is over several items in the bill, especially the boards’ current composition. There’s seven labor trustees including active and retired police and fire representatives, but just five trustees from the management side.

“This is an over $23 billion pension fund, which is primarily being funded by the taxpayers through the local government so that is why we are very concerned that we do not have an equal voice at the table,” said Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr.

“The reason we’re management and it’s heavy on labor is because that’s the way the successful systems are run. Respectfully to the league, I’ve seen a lot of mayors in Franklin Township, Somerset County come and go. I’ll be approaching my 25th year. They come, they get re-elected or don’t win re-election and they move on. I’m a stakeholder. I’m going to be collecting this hopefully for decades to come,” said Patrick Colligan with the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association.

But there’s also concern about the bill being fast-tracked through the Legislature and whether the $24 billion fund will lose returns by splitting up assets, and ultimately have less money to invest.

“The best way to manage fees is by having strong investment policy statements and by knowing what investments you’re getting into. I do not believe that this bill is going to get us to lower fees and better returns,” said Jim Slevin, district vice president of the International Association of Firefighters.

Though the unions argue it will still be the 38th largest pension system in the country, offering data from actuaries showing none of the other six funds will be hurt by separating their investment.

“The league has had a concept bill for six months so this is not fast tracked. I respect your position Mr. chairman. This is a 2.5-year process that we’ve been working on and it all hatched from the fact that I can’t stand around and watch the state of New Jersey just last year lose 0.84 percent,” Colligan said.

Is it being rushed through?

“First of all, over my years of working here I’ve always found that when people claim something’s being rushed through they’re generally the people who don’t like the bill,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli.

“You work for an employer, I work for an employer. When you get your paycheck, does your employer tell you what to do with your money and how to spend your money? We work for municipalities throughout the sate of New Jersey. When we get our paycheck, my mayor does not tell me how to pay my rent. Now they’re going to have a say in how I’m going to get my pension,” Tarantino asked.

One representative implored legislators to ask more questions, stop the feud and protect their pension. The bill passed out of committee along party lines and now heads to the Assembly for a full vote this Thursday.