PATERSON, NJ – Under normal circumstances, Vera Ames-Garnes would be able to collect an annual state pension of almost $20,000 when she retires at the end of June from her 25-year-career on the Paterson City Council.
But New Jersey treasury records say Ames-Garnes has only been enrolled in the state pension system since August 1, 2008. The number of years of service is a key factor in calculating government retirees’ pensions. As a result, the councilwoman is looking at a state pension that amounts to only about $3,100 a year, according to treasury regulations.
“What can I do?’’ said Ames-Garnes. “Somebody made a mistake and didn’t put in the forms. They’re all gone or dead now. I don’t know why I was never put in. What can I do?’’
The state allows public employees to make back payments to buy service time for their pensions under certain circumstances. Ames-Garnes would be eligible to buy back six years of her service time, said treasury spokesman Bill Quinn. According to state formulas, that would cost the councilwoman about $18,000 and the boost in her pension would be about $4,800 per year.
Ames-Garnes said she learned of her pension status in a letter from the state months ago, before she went out on medical leave in the spring from her city council position. “When I heard I didn’t have a pension, that’s when my blood pressure started going up,’’ she said.
The councilwoman said she has heard of other long-time Paterson employees who learned as they neared retirement that they had far less service time than what they expected. “I’m not the only one this happened to,’’ she said.
Quinn said enrollment in the state pension system is optional for local government employees. “Employees can opt out,’’ he said. State records show Ames-Garnes did not apply to the pension system until 2008, according to Quinn.
But Ames-Garnes says she never opted out of the pension system. “Who in their right mind would opt out of being in the pension?’’ she said. “It’s supposed to be automatic.’’
Ames-Garnes said she never noticed whether pension deductions were coming out of her paychecks. “I always had direct deposit,’’ she said.
Ames-Garnes is not seeking re-election. Her current term expires on June 30.