PATERSON, NJ- When Luis Vega joined the Paterson Fire Department he knew there were likely more lucrative, and safer, career paths. However, from an early age his desire was to “serve the community.”
32 years later, Vega, now the longest serving active firefighter in the department, is looking towards retirement. “I’ve run into burning buildings, I’ve lost brothers, and I’ve had a few bumps and bruises,” said Vega. “Still, I believe, it’s the greatest job in the world.”
It’s stories of service to the community like Vega’s and at least 46 other active and retired Paterson firefighters and police officers, that Councilman Andre Sayegh was thinking about when he cast his vote earlier this week in support of an ordinance that would allow the city to bond for nearly $5 million to cover the retirement payouts that are due to recent and upcoming retirees.
“The men and women that serve Paterson do so at great risk to themselves,” stated Sayegh. “These retirement checks aren’t a bonus we are giving them on the way out the door, they were earned through decades of putting themselves in front of danger to help others, and rarely, if ever, calling out for a day off.”
While Paterson Business Administrator Nellie Pou shared a list of terminal leave payouts she did not reveal the names of whom they were associated with. This, she suggested, was the most appropriate course of action as not all of the retirements are final.
Council members Michael Jackson and Martiza Davila defended the omission with Jackson calling it a “courtesy to not make someone’s personal business public” and Davila suggesting that at this point they “only needed figures, not names.”
While retirement benefits have been capped by both state law and collective bargaining agreements in recent years those retirees included on the list the Council discussed started their career when terminal leave was unlimited.
“It’s unfortunate that some in public office aren’t being fully truthful when it comes to explaining that our members earned this money though twenty five, maybe thirty years of dedicated service,” stated Jerry Behnke, President, Paterson FMBA Local 2. The overtime costs that Paterson would’ve realized over the years if these workers had decided to call in sick or otherwise used their agreed upon days off would’ve far exceeded these payments he suggested.
The Council’s lone vote against the ordinance came from Councilman William McKoy who referred to the payouts multiple times as “boat checks,” and criticized Governor Christie for failing to set lower caps on retirement payouts for police officers and firefighters like he did to other public employees.
His statements, according to Behnke “play right into the hands of Christie who has spent eight years creating an us versus them culture.” He added that through the collective bargaining process, and with a “healthy respect” for the city’s financial constraints, the union recently agreed to a contract that set a significantly lower limit on retirement payouts for newer members.
The council is set to further discuss, and hold a public hearing on, this issue at their meeting on Nov. 21.
Editor’s Note: In the interest of transparency, the publisher of TAPinto Paterson also serves as a spokesman for Paterson FMBA Local 2