Santos retreats on F/T

Kearny Mayor Alberto G. Santos

Kearny Mayor Alberto G. Santos

KEARNY – 

Don’t blame some members of the Kearny governing body for holding more than one public job – they’re simply showing their skills at multitasking.

That’s the contention of Mayor Alberto Santos, who doubles as the clerk to the Hudson County Board of Freeholders.

Santos’ comments, made at the April 28 mayor/Town Council meeting, came in the context of his defense of why Kearny elected officials – as “full-time” employees – should be entitled to collect state health benefits if they are so inclined – including the “newbies” elected to the council since the state health benefit law was amended in 2010 mandating local contributions by employees.

At that meeting, the mayor and Town Council voted for the introduction of an ordinance “declaring the members of the Town’s governing body to be full-time elective officers ….”

A public hearing on the ordinance was slated for May 12 but Santos told The Observer last week he would ask the council to pull the ordinance in light of the state’s threat to withhold transitional aid for 2015 if the town adopted it.

In a May 1 letter to Santos, Timothy J. Cunningham, director of the state Div. of Local Government Services, advised Santos that the town’s elected officials are “part-time” employees and, as such, are not entitled to state health insurance benefits.

Cunningham wrote, in part, that, “Under the health benefit reforms instituted by Gov. Christie [enacted] in May 2010, only full-time elected officials and appointed officials [who work at least 35 hours a week] are eligible for … coverage under the State Health Benefits Program,” except for those officials elected prior to 2010 who are “grandfathered” in.

Cunningham added: “It would be difficult for an elected official to devote over 35 hours a week to municipal business while maintaining full-time employment elsewhere. A cursory review of the Town’s website indicates that the majority of the municipal council maintains full-time employment outside of the Town (some in government positions).”

Moreover, Cunningham maintained, the agreement Kearny signed with the state to receive transitional aid “clearly states” that parttime elected officials are not eligible for state health care benefits.

If Kearny were to adopt the ordinance, “the Division will take immediate steps to nullify the MOU and rescind transitional aid payments … for … 2015,” Cunningham said.

‘It would be difficult for an elected official to devote over 35 hours a week to municipal business while maintaining full-time employment elsewhere. A cursory review of the Town’s website indicates that the majority of the municipal council maintains full-time employment outside of the Town (some in government positions).’

— Timothy J. Cunningham, Director, Div. of Local Gov’t Svcs.

Kearny received $2.5 million in Transitional Aid for 2014 – and was assigned a state fiscal monitor in the process – but it has yet to learn whether it will be getting any aid for this year.

So, the mayor said he would be asking the council to withdraw the proposed legislation – despite a ringing justification offered for it at last month’s meeting when Town Attorney Greg Castano said that under the state statute, a municipality “could define the parameters” of full-time employment for its elective officials.

“We looked over what a council member does – you can do it by looking at the code governing their duties, the commemorative events they attend, the committees they serve on, and I can clearly and honestly say that a member of this council will have spent 35 hours a week on the job,” Castano said.

And while they’re “not expected to put in a time sheet every week, they do meet the ‘full-time’ statutory requirements,” the attorney added.

Santos added: “It’s not just the two [mayor and council] meetings a month,” he said. “It’s responding to constituents’ calls, committee and board meetings, as well as the ceremonial aspects. Anyone who says this job is part-time is mistaken ….

“As a response to this state’s highest officials’ criticism of ‘double-’ and tripledippers’, yes, most of us sitting up here do more than one job and that’s because we’re capable of doing more than one job. We put in many hours. We’re at agenda meetings that sometimes never end. This ordinance is the right thing to do.”

To say that local elective officials should be denied health benefits is simply wrong-headed, Santos said. Pay rates have been “frozen for a half-century” in Kearny: a council member’s salary has remained unchanged at $6,000 a year and the mayor’s, at $7,500.

Moreover, Santos said, “We’re talking about who you want to represent you. If being of service is going to be [regarded as] a cost to you, you’re not going to attract the people you need for this job.”

In New Jersey, private insurance premiums in New Jersey can cost anywhere from about $15,000 to $30,000 a year, depending on the type of coverage.

Public workers in New Jersey’s state health benefits program must pay a fixed percentage of their premium cost keyed to their salary and type of plan, ranging from a low of 3% of the premium cost for people making less than $25,000 a year to a high of 35% for those earning more than $110,000 for family coverage.

‘It’s not just the two [council] meetings a month. It’s responding to constituents’ calls, committee and board meetings, as well as the ceremonial aspects. Anyone who says this job is part-time is mistaken …’

— Kearny Mayor Al Santos

Councilwoman Susan McCurrie, who chairs the council’s ordinance committee, echoed the mayor’s concern about depriving officials an opportunity for benefits as a vehicle for dissuading dedicated residents from running for office.

“There’s a potential to limit the class of candidates serving Kearny,” McCurrie said. “That would be doing a disservice to the citizens of this town.”

However, in light of the state’s threat to cut off trans sitional aid, Santos said last week he’s throwing in the towel rather than jeopardize the town’s chances of re-upping for transitional aid.

But the state’s position, the mayor said, “does demean local officials and the work we do. I find the state’s application of the statute heavy-handed and creating a double standard in how the law is applied.”

And, Santos said, “I can see very well that at the end of their terms some council members saying, ‘this is something I cannot do in the future,’ in terms of the financial burden being placed on them in having to purchase their own health insurance.”

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.