When Zack Zelwak decided to retire after a long career running the Lower Township Recreational Department, he did what a growing number of public employees in New Jersey are doing: He went to a state with fewer people and lower taxes.

Zelwak found the slower pace he sought in Boiling Springs, N.C., a town of about 5,000 people within sight of the Smokey and Appalachian mountains. The purchase price for the house, the yearly property taxes and even the utility bill were a fraction of what he was paying in New Jersey. North Carolina has no state income tax.

Like a lot of the public employees who earn their living in New Jersey but retire to other states, the decision was about lifestyle and costs. Many go to tax-friendly states with less congestion.

“I’m in the middle of nowhere, which I like,” said Zelwak. “We sit on the back deck and see owls, hawks, turkeys and coyotes. I even saw a bobcat. The only thing I miss are the cheesesteaks and the seafood. Here, all seafood is catfish.”

New Jersey lawmakers are constantly sounding alarms about the state’s unfunded pension liabilities. Gov. Chris Christie calls it a “terrifyingly deep $120 billion pension and benefits hole.” Some say the long-range price tag could be even worse as estimates come from accounting that include the unsure world of actuarial tables and stock market predictions. A 2011 study said the liability range is $119 billion to $254 billion.

But it isn’t just the money that is owed. Almost one-quarter of retiring public workers are not even spending their pension checks in New Jersey.

Christopher Santarelli, a spokesman for the state Department of Treasury, said 69,608 pension checks are sent out each month — and about 23 percent of the payments go outside New Jersey.

Santarelli said that sends more than $160 million a month — or about 21 percent of the total dollars — outside the state. The top five states the money goes to are Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and New York, the latter two possibly because workers live in those neighboring states but work in New Jersey.

Christie recently touted his latest budget for earmarking $2.25 billion to pension payments. Meanwhile, $1.94 billion a year is leaving the state to pensioners who moved out.

“Public sector workers make money off taxpayers and then leave the system. This is just part and parcel to the high tax climate here. People are leaving the state due to high taxes, and they’re taking their pensions with them,” said Mike Proto of the group Americans for Prosperity New Jersey.

Proto said that in three of the past four years, New Jersey has led the nation in having more people leave than move in, at a ratio of about 2-1. He said the tax burden must be lowered, and that the way to do this is to reduce the size of government.

“We need to cut taxes and cut spending. We should be lowering the state work force because more on the public payroll just adds to pension liabilities. We think the state government is far too big. Spending is up 20 percent since Christie took office,” Proto said.

Christie, in a bipartisan effort, has enacted pension reforms including an increase in employee contributions, older retirement ages, ending cost-of-living increases and other measures.

The group New Jersey Watchdog says the number of pensioners collecting more than $100,000 a year is 1,731, up from 739 in 2010. The checks don’t include the benefits some workers continue to receive after they retire.

New Jersey is consistently ranked among the worst states in which to retire, but it isn’t just due to population density or property taxes. The Tax Foundation, a Washington-based group, tracked migration of residents among states between 2000 and 2010 and found income taxes were a huge factor. Nine states without an income tax saw migrants bring in $113 billion in adjusted gross annual income. The leaders were Florida, Arizona, Texas and North Carolina. Florida picked up $67 billion.

The nine states with the highest income tax lost more than $90 billion. New York led the way at $45.6 million lost, followed by California, Illinois and New Jersey, which lost $15.7 billion a year.

The Tax Foundation also placed New Jersey as second-highest in the nation in the percentage of income paid in state and local taxes. New York was highest at 12.6 percent, followed by New Jersey at 12.3 percent. Wyoming was lowest at 6.9 percent. North Carolina, where Zelwak moved, was at 9.8 percent.

Richard Borean of The Tax Foundation said there are other factors besides taxes that convince people to move, but it is a factor.

“Certainly taxes are something people consider when they make a move from one state to another. Tax policy is something legislators can control,” Borean said.

Zelwak said his North Carolina neighborhood is full of residents from other states, including Illinois, Virginia, Nebraska and two towns in southern New Jersey: Tuckahoe in Cape May County and Mays Landing in Atlantic County.

Zelwak said he has no regrets about moving to North Carolina. Much of it, he said, is not about saving some money but about the environment he moved to.

“The sky is so clear there are thousands of stars. We see shooting stars a couple times a week. There are no mosquitoes, and all winter we have 2 or 3 inches of snow and it’s gone by the afternoon. Not once have I worn a winter jacket in three years. There are things we appreciate here we couldn’t in New Jersey because of the population density,” Zelwak said.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711

Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.