Pension Talk Dominates Westfield Town Council Meeting
Wednesday, August 8, 2012 • 12:17am
WESTFIELD, NJ—At the August 7 town council meeting, debate over five Westfield employees’ enrollment in the pension system took up most of the evening after it was brought up that the town was one of many that may not have complied with state law barring independent contractors from earning pension credits. A recent state comptroller investigation found that Westfield, which was one of 58 municipalities reviewed, was among the overwhelming majority of those local governments that failed to comply with a 2007 state law requiring all public entities to determine whether their professional service providers were bona fide employees as opposed to independent contractors.
According to the Office of the State Comptroller, The 2007 law made clear that individuals are ineligible for state pension credits if they were retained through a public contracting process or if they otherwise meet the Internal Revenue Service’s multi-factor definition of an independent contractor. Individuals ineligible for pension credits were to be removed from the system once their existing contract or annual appointment expired in 2008.
When questioned by resident John Blake, Finance Committee Chair Sam Della Fera explained that the council’s interpretation of the law had been that new employees were ineligible.
Former Councilman Sal Caruana, who served from 2003 until 2010, came before the council to argue that the practice of letting part-time employees receive pensions was not unethical before it was illegal, as Councilman David Haas has recently written, but a way for Westfield to hire highly skilled professionals at better rates than the town would have gotten if it had not offered pension benefits.
Caruana said that any insinuation that Westfield is bankrupting the pension system “is ridiculous,” and that the pension system is failing due to lower investment returns than once expected.
Haas argued that part-time employees receiving pension benefits was one of the many things “wrong with the system.”
In regard to his use of the term “unethical,” Haas added, “My view of the situation is not that people acted out of malice or out of any political shenanigans.”
Della Fera said that Westfield’s total contribution to the pension system since 2008 was less than $24,000, and that, for $5,300 a year, Westfield was able to preserve the services of some very good employees at discounted rates. As for the pension system itself, he said, “It isn’t going to go broke because of anything that Westfield did.”
Della Fera added that, if it is determined that benefits were improperly received, they would be returned.
Councilwoman JoAnn Neylan, who was standing in as acting mayor for Mayor Andy Skibitzky that evening, invited residents to call council members to learn the facts about this issue.
Resident Sim Hitzel told the council of his concerns regarding the town’s debt, its spent reserves and its recently downgraded credit rating.
“Our budget for 2012 is at a level that the town hasn’t seen since 2008,” responded Della Fera. And, he said, “We are in less debt today than we were several years ago.” He argued that, rather than keep money in reserve, the town used it to maintain the fire department, police department and services.
“I don’t work for Standard & Poor’s. I work for the people of Westfield,” said Della Fera. “If a AA+ rating is considered unfavorable, I’d consider that a downgrade from a Porsche to a Mercedes Benz.”
Resident Greg Kasko also argued that there are many ways in which the town could better control its spending. He also reminded the council that crossing guards “are not supposed to be directing traffic in a police-officer way.”
Kasko said he has seen crossing guards nearly cause accidents by doing so. “This is the last council meeting before school starts and I think that this needs to be addressed,” he said.
Kasko then argued again that the town council—and not the county—has the power to move the HAWK light and crosswalk on Central Avenue to the nearby intersection.
Kasko, Adina Enculescu and Maria Carluccio regularly attend Westfield town council meetings, arguing again and again against the HAWK system, which sits in front of Enculescu’s home. They have complained that the configuration is confusing and dangerous, that Enculescu’s driveway now appears to be a road on which to turn and that the signal devalues Enculescu’s property.
Carluccio, who always begins her address to the council with a quote from the Bible, said she continues to attend council meetings even though nothing has changed because, “It’s still wrong. I’m still seeing problems.”
“People do favors for people. So I have to think that light was moved as a favor for someone,” Carluccio said at one point.
Town Administrator Jim Gildea later said that insinuating that the light was placed mid-block as a favor was inappropriate. “This was a public safety improvement,” said Gildea. He added that a full light was originally slated to be placed at that mid-block spot. “At the last minute the county decided to make it a HAWK light,” he said.
Carluccio could be heard shouting “That is not true,” and “liar” as he spoke.
Kasko shouted from the audience, “Residents are experts.”
“Mr. Kasko, you’re a liar,” answered Gildea.
When Enculescu addressed the council, she said that there were many in Westfield who agree with her, but that they don’t come before the council because they don’t want to be insulted.
Neylan answered that she believed the council members were always very respectful.
In other business, the council approved a bond ordinance to authorize the acquisition of a new aerial fire truck with pumper, at a cost of $988,000. Some of the truck’s cost will be offset by the $73,000 in insurance money collected after the town’s 19-year-old ladder truck was totaled in last year’s hurricane.
The council also approved a bond ordinance to appropriate $160,000 toward making various public improvements and the acquisition of new, additional or replacement equipment and machinery, new communication and signal systems equipment and a new automotive vehicle.