These are tough times. It's hard for New Jersey's community college presidents to get by on their mere $186,000 average annual salaries. That's why some of their contracts contain additional perks, such as lavish expense accounts, housing allowances, free cars and tuition for their children.
That's our admittedly snarky reaction to an Associated Press report that says the average community college president makes $11,000 a year more than the governor. One third also have pension, retirement and deferred compensation packages that cost at least $30,000 a year.
The state comptroller began looking into these salaries after two presidents, Gloucester County College's Russell Davis and Brookdale Community College's Peter Burnham, resigned amid allegations of financial impropriety. Davis has pleaded not guilty to a charge of forgery on a loan application. Burnham hasn't been charged with any crime, but auditors say he charged non-work expenses to his school.
Bergen Community College's president is being criticized by the Bergen County executive for allegedly charging nearly $100,000 in meal, drink, travel and golf expenses over four years.
Burnham, who had been president of Brookdale in Monmouth County for 20 years, had a contract that required the college to pay property tax increases on his home, in addition to his $1,500-per-month housing allowance. He also had a $40,000 per year allowance for his children's college tuition.
And this is at a community college, an institution designed to keep expenses at a minimum so it can offer classes at a bare-bones price to students who might not otherwise be able to afford college.
At a time when our state is nearly broke, residents are taxed to the limit and the economy is on life support, arguments about the need to pay lavishly and offer perks to attract top talent to the public sector just don't fly anymore.
Community college presidents are public employees. Taxpayers worried about their jobs - or looking for one - are no longer going to stand for such compensation packages. The students who pay the tuition that subsidizes them shouldn't have to either.
Of course, not every president makes this much. Warren County College's president has the lowest salary, $134,000. And that $186,000 average is less than what a lot of school superintendents were making before the state moved to cap their pay last year. It's also only a third of what the president of Rutgers University makes. (Does that make you feel better, or worse?)
Thankfully, some people get it.
Cumberland County College President Thomas Isekenegbe has no car allowance. He doesn't use the gym membership perk left over from a previous president, and he recently asked the college's board of trustees to charge him the same 1.5 percent of his salary toward health insurance that other college employees are required to pay.
Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan says county officials should have more control over college spending. She's right.
But even without such oversight, boards of trustees, school boards and other public bodies ought to realize that the current economic crisis has reset the rules.
There's a new reality. And it doesn't include free cars.