By Mark Lagerkvist | New Jersey Watchdog
New Jersey’s elite $100K Club of retired public officials is growing bigger and fatter.
The number of retirees collecting more than $100,000 a year from state pensions hit 1,474 in 2012 – an increase of nearly 50 percent in two years, according to a New Jersey Watchdog analysis of state pension data.
Former Jersey City school superintendent Charles Epps heads the list with a $195,000 annual pension. When he stepped down last year amid controversy and a gag order, Epps also received a $268,200 settlement plus $85,000 for unused sick time, according to NJ.com.
All of the Top Five pensioners are retired school executives. A. Z. Yamba, former president of Essex County College, is tied for the lead at $195,000. He is trailed by John Richardson, Ridgefield Park schools, $185,454; Vincent Ascolese, North Bergen schools, $180,180; and J. T. Morton, Sparta schools, $171,773.
Among local governments, Paterson fosters the most $100,000-plus pensions with 29 retirees drawing six-figure retirement pay. The city is followed by Hoboken and Paramus, each with 22; North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue with 21; and Newark, Edison Township and Jersey City Fire Department with 19 each.
As a group, retired police and fire officials are most likely to belong to the $100K Club. Forty-three percent, or 631, are members of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System.
The overwhelming majority of PRFS $100K retirees – 92 percent, or 581 – took advantage of “special retirement.” It is an exclusive provision in pension law that allows law enforcement officers – but not other public employees – to start collecting big pensions at relatively young ages.
When Joseph Blaettler opted for special retirement at age 46, the former Union City deputy police chief began pocketing nearly $135,000 a year in pension checks.
“Politicians created this system, and I simply accepted what they gave me along the way,” Blaettler told New Jersey Watchdog last year. ”If taxpayers want to get angry with someone, they need to ask their local and state politicians how they allowed the system to get to the point it is at.”
If Blaettler reaches age 80, his statistical life expectancy, he will rake in more than $4.5 million from PFRS.
Lottery-sized payouts contribute to the fiscal woes of the state pension system, which faces a future shortfall of $41.7 billion, according to the latest figures released by the state Treasury.
Of the other $100K retirees, 446 are members of the Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund, 283 belong to the Judicial Retirement System and 114 are part of the Public Employees Retirement System.
In 2010, 992 retirees received $100,000 or more a year in state pensions. The number increased to 1,244 in 2011 and 1,474 last year, according to state Treasury data.
The growth of the $100K Club suggests parallel increases in public employee salaries – particularly among the upper echelon of municipal officials, law enforcement officers and educators. Final salary is a key factor in calculating a retiree’s pension.