Atlantic City owes its employees almost $35 million in payments to be made at retirement for unused sick and vacation time. It's called terminal leave. And the resort has the third-highest liability in the state, after the much larger Newark and Jersey City.
Gov. Chris Christie calls the payments, which are often six figures, "boat checks," for what they can buy. The long-standing practice, which cities, school boards and other governmental entities agreed to over the years in contract negotiations, is outrageous. Who in the private sector has such an arrangement?
But what is particularly frustrating right now is that attempts in the Legislature to rein in or eliminate such payments have stalled. And public worker unions even continue to fight attempts to cap the payments.
Such payments for state employees have been capped at $15,000 since 1986. But most local governments have not historically capped the payments. Atlantic City has managed to negotiate recent contracts that limit the payments to $15,000 for white-collar workers hired after 2002 and for future firefighters. But agreements for five other City Hall bargaining units will soon expire - and the unions vow to fight any caps.
That position is unacceptable. Terminal-leave payments in Atlantic City, particularly to high-ranking police and fire officials, often top $100,000. Former Police Chief Arthur Snellbaker cashed in a jaw-dropping $798,446 in unused time in 2006.
This is an issue that must be addressed statewide, and the solution is clear: Eliminate the perk for all new hires - zero cash value for unused time. And freeze everyone else in place - they get what they have already accumulated and no more.
In fact, back in February, Senate President Stephen Sweeney introduced a measure that would do pretty much exactly that. But the bill has gone nowhere.
Sweeney's bill came after Christie vetoed an earlier measure that would have capped the payments at $15,000 for all public workers. The governor wanted to claw back unused time workers had already accrued - which, we admit, is simply unfair and probably illegal. Christie also rejected a $7,500 cap.
But Sweeney's bill, which gives the governor the zero cash value for unused time he insists on, has languished.
Why? It's bad enough that even eliminating the perk for future hires won't give taxpayers any relief for decades - Atlantic City will still owe that $35 million to current employees. And millions more in terminal-leave liabilities have accrued as Christie and the Legislature dither.
The right bill is on the table. Lawmakers need to approve it, and Christie needs to sign it. Yesterday.