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NJ Firefighters Start Paying For Pensions, Health Care

NJ Firefighters Start Paying For Pensions, Health Care

A crowd of state employees waits outside the Senate chambers during the vote on pension reform in February. Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex) moves through the crowd.

The Star-Leger via YellowBrix

May 21, 2010

TRENTON – A law reducing pension and health care benefits for police and firefighters will go into effect today after a state judge Thursday refused to block it.

Unions representing police and firefighters argued that the changes improperly infringe upon the collective bargaining process. They also said the requirement to contribute 1.5 percent of their salary to health care constitutes a tax on public employees.

But Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg rejected their arguments, allowing the changes to go into effect.

“I don’t think it’s a tax,” she said. “It’s a medical contribution.”

The unions had filed their motion on behalf of about 215 police and fire locals in some stage of arbitration, saying the process for hammering out contracts would be upended if the changes are enacted.

“You are clearly treading on a protected right in an unreasonable way,” said attorney David Fox, who represented the Firefighter’s Mutual Benevolent Association.

Although their motion failed, union lawyers said they will continue to push their lawsuit in an effort to prove the legislation is unconstitutional.

“This is just a skirmish in the battle,” said attorney Paul Kleinbaum, who represented the New Jersey State Policeman’s Benevolent Association. He argued that the 1.5 percent contribution constituted an improper tax specifically on public employees.

“It’s a deduction from payroll for the purpose of raising revenue,” he said. “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck.”

Assistant Attorney General Nancy Kaplan, who argued on behalf of the state, said the Legislature was well within its right to set benchmarks for public employee benefits.

“There is nothing that rises to the level of unconstitutionally in this statute,” she said. “Policy can be changed.”

The League of Municipalities praised Feinberg’s decision.

“We have been calling for pension and benefit reforms for some time,” Executive Director William Dressel said. “The required 1.5 percent contribution will go a long way towards helping local governments keep costs under control and keep taxes down.”