By JASON METHOD • STATEHOUSE BUREAU • January 4, 2011
TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie wants to reform the state’s under-funded pension system, but the state continues to fight an effort by some 200 New Jersey State Police troopers to increase the mandatory retirement age.
The state Appellate Court is scheduled to hear an appeal by the state Attorney General’s office today on a long-running lawsuit that seeks to overturn the State Police’s mandatory retirement age of 55.
Ironically, the court fight continues even as Christie proposes to raise the retirement age to 65 years old for teachers and most municipal and state workers.
Christie’s proposal also calls for local and state police to work 30 years before retaining full pension benefits, but does not seek to raise law enforcement retirement ages. Christie has contended younger police are better able to deal with the rigors of the job.
Pension experts say that — in general — raising retirement ages helps pensions because employees will pay into the system longer and collect for a shorter time before they die.
The union that represents state troopers, however, opposes the effort to raise the retirement age. The union also contends that the extra pension some troopers will earn, within 7 years or so, will outstrip the money initially saved if the age were increased.
The lawsuit, filed in 2009, was brought by troopers who joined the force too late in life to work 25 years in order to qualify for an annual pension of 65 percent of their salary. Instead, they will have to accept a pension of half their salary, just as they would if they retired at 20 years.
One of the plaintiffs, Lt. James A. Miani, 53, of Point Pleasant, joined the State Police 21 years ago.
He and others said in interviews that when they were hired, their employee handbook and state officials told them their pension would be increased for every year they worked after 20 years, up to the 65 percent.
But the information was wrong; the law never provided for that. So they sued in May 2009.
Miani, a trainer the State Police Academy in Sea Girt, said that it’s not reasonable that employees should be expected to know the law beyond their employee handbook. “You don’t question that,” he said.
He and his group pointed out that the State Police mandatory retirement age is based on a 1984 study. But they feel that modern medicine and health practices have made the policy outdated.
“The local officers do the same thing we do, but they can stay on until they’re 65 years old, so we’re looking for parity,” Miani said. “Most of us feel that we’re physically fit and can do the job.”
However, a Superior Court judge in Mercer County tossed out the groups’ claim that the employee handbook information should trump the laws that had been on the books. The judge also rejected the argument that the mandatory retirement age violates equal protection rights.
The judge, however, ruled that the suit proceed on the grounds that the retirement age violates New Jersey’s law against discrimination. The state Attorney General’s office appealed that decision to the Appellate Court.
In its filing with the Appellate Court, the state contends that state and federal law clearly allow for mandatory retirement age for the State Police, and that previous court decisions should be construed in favor of a retirement age.
Beyond the legal questions, the plaintiffs’ attorney, William Buckman of Moorestown, said he is surprised the state does not want to look into raising the age.
“With its budget woes and pension problems, one would think it would be a good idea to not have people retire and contribute to the pension system for a longer period of time,” he said.
Dave Jones, president of the union that represents state troopers, said that although he is sympathetic toward troopers who were misled by the handbook and benefit briefings, he said the mandatory retirement prevents a “boss for life” syndrome developing, which he said breeds cronyism.
Raising the retirement age would be “incredibly bad for career development,” Jones said. “This makes people move along. So in order to make the rank, the other guy has to go, and (younger troopers) get that reward.”
Jones said the state troopers pension fund within the state pension system is, because of higher contribution rates by troopers, better funded than the pension funds for other state and local government employees.
He said he did not think raising the mandatory retirement age for State Police would save money. But at any rate, it’s not necessary, he added.