A 2007 law was supposed to purge private contractors from the state pension system.
But laws only work if they are enforced, and municipalities and school districts throughout the state have been ignoring this one.
That's the conclusion of a report by Comptroller Matthew Boxer, who found that in 58 towns and school districts, 202 professionals who are not eligible to receive pension benefits were nonetheless left on the pension rolls, allowing them to build up credits that could ultimately cost taxpayers nearly $2 million a year.
That's in 58 government entities. Makes you wonder what's going on in the other 515 municipalities and 597 school districts that weren't part of this investigation, doesn't it?
New Jersey's pension system already faces an unfunded liability of more than $41 billion. Any pension obligations that are illegally incurred further endanger the benefits that hundreds of thousands of public workers have earned.
In addition, by keeping independent contractors such as municipal attorneys and engineers enrolled in the system, local governments allowed many of them to qualify for lifetime health care benefits. In the sampling Boxer examined, that amounted to more than $307,000 annually.
In our area, improper pension enrollment was reported in Wildwood, North Wildwood, Weymouth Township and at the Weymouth Township Board of Education.
The report says that in some towns, officials simply misunderstood the law, thinking, for instance, that contractors who were in the pension system prior to 2007 were grandfathered in. In other places, officials knowingly violated the rules in order to benefit contractors.
There hasn't been much to prevent local entities from making errors or willful violations.
There is only one investigator in the Division of Pensions and Benefits, so the chances of getting caught are pretty slim.
In the wake of the report, Gov. Chris Christie directed the state Department of Community Affairs to require that the annual audits of government entities certify pension eligibility and that local finance officers certify compliance with the law.
Assemblywoman Donna Simon, R-Somerset, said she'll introduce legislation to fine towns and districts that fail to review pension eligibility for contractors.
Better late than never.
One of the most disturbing things about the report is that of the 202 contractors, 176 were attorneys - you know, the folks who are paid to read and understand laws. And in some towns, the very lawyers whose eligibility for the pension system was in question were the ones advising elected officials on that eligibility.
Boxer said, "That just flies in the face of common sense."