Tuesday, August 19, 2008

NJDEP escapes worst of early retirements

The Department of Environmental Protection was one of the sectors of state government sweating the most when New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine signed legislation on June 24 offering extra pay and health benefits to state workers who would agree to take early retirement as a way of reducing overall state spending.

Two months earlier, DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson had candidly told members of the Assembly Budget Committee that, unlike in the previous tight budget year when she testified that her Department could learn to "do more with less," this time she faced a "do less with less" situation.

Jackson's projected operating budget of $230 million for FY 2009 was taking a hit of $19.6 million from the previous-year level and, though she didn't mention it, she had to be well aware that the governor's early retirement proposal held the potential for real disaster.

In all, 85 percent of the DEP's workforce would have been eligible for early retirement under the governor's original plan which would have been open to qualified workers as young as 52.

Fortunately for the DEP, the Legislature raised the qualifying age to 58, which shrunk the size of the potential retiree pool. And then something happened that few expected--the offer failed to interest anywhere near as many as workers as the governor's staff had anticipated.

In fact, only a little more than one-third (1,488) of the eligible 3,828 state workers overall took the deal, leaving Corzine with some 6,540 more employees than he had hoped for.

At the DEP, 121 of 250 eligible workers said adios, leaving the department with about 3,090 employees, almost 300 short of its total when Jackson took over for Bradley Campbell on Feb. 28, 2006.

The retirements will hurt the agency for sure. Gone are 24 permit writers in its land use section which gets 7,000 applications each year. But it could have been much worse.

"We could have lost the entire seasoned cadre in our air quality section," a senior DEP official told us, "but only one--Lou Mikolajczyk--took the offer."

Of the 121 who will be departing, most are not high-profile names recognizable in the business community. Exceptions are Frank Coolick, who had served as administrator of the Solid and Hazardous Waste Management Program, and Frank Peluso, a long-time member of the Department's Office of Recycling. Another, Barker Hamill, who has a national reputation in water supply circles, also is departing but has agreed to a seven-month extension.

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