Workers go shopping at taxpayer expense

UNION CITY, N.J. - December 4, 2009

But what's unusual in the case of some city workers in South Jersey, is that they're making money while they're spending it.

In Union City, public workers actually get a paid day off at taxpayer expense to go Christmas shopping!

That's just one of the lavish perks uncovered in a new State Commission of Investigation report that looked at 75 towns across New Jersey and found $39 million worth of extravagant benefits given to public employees.

"It's a gravy train that keeps rolling along and we've pretty much made the case it's time to derail it," said SCI Assistant Director Lee Seglem.

One problem found in many towns: Public employees cashing in on unused sick and vacation time at retirement. In Atlantic City between 2004 and 2008, 160 police and firefighters were paid over $13.7 million for that. It's all legal, but terribly costly.

In Camden, one of New Jerseys's poorest cities, investigators found that departing employees, whether they are retiring or quit, are being treated to taxpayer-financed bonuses that can equal up to 10 weeks pay.

"There is no reason in the world why property tax payers in the state should be burdened by that kind of exorbitant, extravagant cost," Seglem said.

Those are costs, the SCI says, that are driving up local property taxes.

"I mean our property taxes are outrageous and it gets worse, it doesn't get any better," said Margaret Johnson of Lawrence, New Jersey.

"If there's that much waste going on and we're paying for it at the property tax level, I think it has to change," said Michelle Schragger of Titusville, New Jersey.

The SCI is recommending towns put caps on the payout of unused time off (state workers are limited to $15,000), and suggesting municipal employees pay 1.5% of their salary toward health care the way state workers do.

There's also a call for towns to take a hard look at and renegotiate the contracts they have with workers.

After all, in this economy, it's hard to justify taxpayers footing the bill for things like public employees being paid to go Christmas shopping.

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