In the strange universe of New Jersey public finances, local governments are the dark matter, or maybe the black hole.
While everyone's dazzled by flashy displays of misspending in Trenton, the countless small towns are silently sucking most of the money into oblivion.
The think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective recently noted that municipalities and other local entities account for nearly two-thirds of the state's government spending. Judging by their freewheeling practices in a time of fiscal crisis, many of them appear to be located in a galaxy far, far away.
A recent report by the State Commission of Investigation examined public employee benefits in a broad sample of the state's towns, counties, and local authorities. In many cases, they make the state's generous benefits look like Wal-Mart's.
Of the 75 entities the commission examined, 80 percent were giving workers over-the-top benefits. They included huge lump-sum payouts for "unused" sick leave, unregulated cash bonuses, and all kinds of ridiculous days off.
Even in this carnival of perks, the state's poorest city, Camden, came out looking especially perky. The report notes that although the city "struggles to maintain basic services" and soaks up tens of millions of dollars in state aid every year, it pays like an investment bank that's about to be bailed out.
From 2004 through 2008, the city gave $2.3 million in retirement windfalls to just 20 employees. Nearly half a million of that went to just two, an outgoing police chief and deputy chief.
The SCI notes that Camden's payouts include a unique severance component not tied to unused leave - or anything else besides quitting. These are "essentially no-strings-attached departure bonuses provided at taxpayer expense for no reason other than leaving the city's employ."
That's not all! From 2003 through 2008, the commission found, the city's then-fire chief, the current interim chief, and a deputy chief - apparently feeling limited by Camden's go-go personnel policies - took a total of nearly a year in compensatory days off "at their pleasure." This was despite the absence of any record of a contract or policy allowing comp time - all while they were busy accumulating "unused" leave toward their own massive retirement payouts.
The report's most jaw-dropping section catalogs a host of reasons for which town employees get paid time off. In Hudson County's Union City, they get a day for Christmas shopping. In nearby West New York, they are excused with pay for weddings, baptisms, confirmations, and first communions. (No time for confessions?)
The commission also notes that there is no comprehensive state law on municipal employment practices, even though Trenton ends up on the hook for much of the costs.
These revelations show Gov. Corzine was right to impose more limits on municipal aid and dual officeholding, which kept the bonanza protected by legislator-mayors. Those measures were controversial, but Governor-elect Christopher J. Christie will have to tame the municipal madness a lot further to bring the state's finances back to this planet.