WILDWOOD — With thousands of firefighters booing him from the Wildwood Convention Center bleachers Friday, a combative Gov. Chris Christie gestured for more and refused to back down on his plan to reduce pension payments to public employees.
"If you guys think you can shout me down, it's going to be a long day," Christie told the crowd as he stood at the convention center's podium to give his remarks during the first day of the New Jersey State Firemen's Association Convention.
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Booing the state's governors has become a tradition for firefighters at the annual convention.
But firefighters had additional incentive Friday, when the governor arrived after 2 p.m. to address them. As part of his plans to reform the state's pension system, Christie has proposed reducing pension payouts by 5 percent to firefighters who retire after 25 years. In order to get 65 percent of their salaries as pension, they would have to work an additional five years. Currently, firefighters can retire after 25 years of service regardless of their age and qualify for 65 percent of their salary as a pension.
Christie, who did get applause as well as boos, didn't shrink from the challenge, telling firefighters that pension reform was overdue
Christie said the pension system for public safety workers is under funded by $46 billion and will continue to get worse if something is not done.
The State Firemen's Association invites the governor to speak each year. Christie claimed that at past conventions, previous governors had glossed over the pension crisis.
"For years, other governors have come here and lied about what is going on," Christie said. "I'm looking for a way to keep faith with all of you."
Christie said that sacrifices need to be made by this generation in order to preserve the same opportunities for pension plans in future generations.
"Everyone in this room and your families who have paid the pension deserve to get it," Christie said.
The governor's frank talk won over some; by the time he left the dais, he was getting more applause than boos.
But some believed the governor was trying to blame them.
Chief Conrad Johnson Jr. of the Wildwood Fire Department was on stage when Christie spoke.
"He seems to be pinning a lot of the blame on the firefighters," Johnson said. "And I think that's not what he should be doing."
Johnson said he's paid 8.5 percent of his salary into his pension for nearly three decades and feels that he and other firefighters should get what they deserve.
But Johnson said that the governor's appearance on Friday showed he was willing to take the heat and at least attempt to explain why he was trying to change the pension system for firefighters.
"I give him a lot of credit for coming here," Johnson said.
As part of a pension reform plan he unveiled Tuesday, Christie also wants to repeal a previously approved benefits increase, end automatic cost-of-living adjustments, and require some employees to contribute more to their pensions
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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