Report: New Jersey taxes spent on pay for union business

Posted: May 11, 2012

New Jersey taxpayers pay millions in salaries and benefits every year for government employees who take leave to do union business, according to a report released Wednesday.

Government and union officials cited in the report responded that the findings were incomplete and politicized, and that such arrangements were commonplace, legal, and collectively bargained.

Gov. Christie’s office seized on the report as an example of union waste.

In Camden, the report from the bipartisan State Commission of Investigation found, $2.3 million has been spent over the last five years to pay the salaries and benefits for three police officers and three firefighters who did full-time union business instead of policing or firefighting.

In the Camden schools, the district is reimbursed by the teachers’ union for a union official’s salary — but such reimbursement payments have not always been made, the report found.

Statewide, some union officials have been on paid leave for decades while “occupying government job titles but doing no government work,” according to the SCI report. In some cases, unofficial agreements allow some union officials to get a salary, health coverage, and additional benefits such as good-attendance stipends, overtime, cars, office space, and computers, the report said.

The SCI examined more than 120 school districts, 17 municipalities, all 21 counties, and 12 departments of state government. In that slice of public sector, between 2006 and 2011, government-paid leave for public employees cost taxpayers more than $30 million.

The report recommended that the Legislature ban or significantly curtail public subsidies for union officials.

The state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, questioned the timing of the report’s release and said school district officials had agreed to the arrangements.

“The fact that the release of this report comes in the midst of a sustained attack on public education and public sector unions in New Jersey is a remarkable coincidence,” NJEA president Barbara Keshishian said in a statement.

A spokesman for the SCI, Lee Seglem, called the suggestion that it timed the release for political purposes “nonsense.” The report was based on a citizen complaint and took about a year to complete, he said.

Christie has battled public sector unions, particularly the NJEA and state worker unions, and forced cuts to benefits that he says have contributed to the state’s fiscal woes.

“This shady, often-hidden public subsidy of union leave from paid public employment costs us all millions every year and must end,” said a Christie spokesman, Michael Drewniak.

Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R., Hunterdon) said Wednesday that he would submit legislation to address the findings.

The SCI report acknowledged that it is neither uncommon “nor necessarily improper” to grant government employees time off for union work, but it said there were so many variations on how that leave is authorized that it demands further examination.

The variations, according to the NJEA, are a result of individual bargaining sessions.

“Providing negotiated release time for the purpose of conducting union business saves both time and money in districts and provides for a better school environment for all concerned,” Keshishian said.

One expert on labor relations, Jeffrey H. Keefe of the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations, agreed on that front.

“We actually want cooperation, and if this helps cooperation, so much the better,” he said, noting that a union official detached from his or her government job can better focus on employee disputes, compensation issues, and safety matters.

“On the other hand ... I can see where a taxpayer can say, ‘The union should pay for this, and if the members want this relief time, they should increase the dues.’?”

The report cited Pemberton Township schools for giving a classroom aide a $14,000 raise once the person became a local union official and found that the union blocked an effort to move that person into the classroom as a substitute teacher once a week.

Pemberton Township Superintendent Michael R. Gorman explained that the contract called for paying the union worker a “teacher’s” salary, so the raise was mandated. And he said the once-a-week assignment was abandoned because it wouldn’t have allowed for students’ “instructional continuity.”

Gorman added that the report failed to note that the district now pays just 25 percent of the union official’s compensation. The report said it was 50 percent. Gorman said he told SCI interviewers about the new policy.

The report alleged that even though a Camden School District contract mandated that the union reimburse the district for the cost of the salary and health benefits of a local union officer, such payments were rarely made. The district began receiving full reimbursement in 2010, the report said.

“We know there is an assault on unions, especially in Camden,” said Laverne Harvey, Camden Education Association president since the 2009-10 school year. “Education is a big political basketball that is being bounced around.”

Harvey called the report a “witch hunt” because of Christie’s “opposition to unions.”

“It’s just disgusting,” she said.

Al Ashley, president of the superior officers firefighters’ union in Camden, said that although he gets paid for four 10-hour days, he is really working a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job.

“I work very hard. The stress levels have been bananas ever since the talk of layoffs started, through the layoffs, and now after the layoffs,” Ashley said, referring to large-scale workforce reductions last year. “Guys call me every day, all day ... we’ve got [many] grievances ... right now.”

Camden police union president John Williamson said the report was inaccurate because it read as if there were three officers on leave. During the five-year period studied by the SCI, three officers were paid for union duties, but only two officers were on leave at a time.

“I’m not going to comment on something that is inaccurate. There’s never been more than two people,” Williamson said.

He also disputed the report’s claim that the police officers on full-time release cost taxpayers more than $1 million in salaries and medical benefits from 2006 to 2011. But he declined to provide an estimated cost, only citing his $74,000 salary and lack of availability for police overtime.

“My phone starts ringing at 5 a.m., and sometimes it doesn’t stop ringing until 2 a.m.” he said.

A spokesman for Camden County, which is working to create a county police force that it hopes to replace the city force, said that under a county arrangement, paid leave for union leaders would not be funded by taxes.

“If a union wants representation, they should pay for it. Bottom line, end of sentence,” said county spokesman Dan Keashen.

Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355 or mkatz@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mattkatz00. Read his blog, “Christie Chronicles,” at www.philly.com/ChristieChronicles.

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