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The Jersey City Fire Department has lost 26 members since the start of the year and will lose 20 more March 1 as firefighters rush to retire before the Legislature caps payouts.
"All of a sudden, I've got all these people that are retiring," said Fire Director Armando Roman.
Across the state, municipal and school employees are making a mass exodus, fearful of state legislation that would cap their payouts for unused sick time at $15,000.
The Senate approved the bill, S-4, 36-0 Monday. The bill would only apply to those hired after the bill is signed into law, but it has employees nervous enough to leave before it becomes law.
The Assembly is expected to introduce its version of the bill today. If approved, Gov. Chris Christie, a proponent for pension reform, is expected to sign it.
Not only does it mean the city is losing firefighters, but retirees are walking away with large payouts for unused sick and vacation time.
The payouts to firefighters amount to about $5 million, said Jennifer Morrill, a spokeswoman for Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy.
The city allotted a total of $7 million for "accumulated absence" payouts in the proposed current year budget. That's up from $4.5 million for that line item last year.
"If this continues, this is obviously going to exceed the allotted amount in the budget and the city is just not in the position to pay out any additional lump sum than what is allocated -- namely $7 million," Healy said in a statement.
"We will instead have to develop a plan where we can pay these amounts out over a number of years.
"There may be some people who are happy about this because of the potential savings, but the serious downside is that we are losing some of our most knowledgeable and experienced personnel from the ranks of the civilian workforce and the Police and Fire departments," Healy added.
Roman is not surprised people are retiring.
"You saved your time. You were told legally that you could accumulate your sick time," Roman said. "People have made plans with that money. It's been like a savings account for their retirement almost."
Roman said not too long ago he had 12 deputy chiefs. The department will be down to five deputy chiefs, 17 battalion chiefs, 132 captains and 372 firefighters.
"We've been out to do more with less, and that's what we're trying to do," he said. "You have to manage with what you have for now, but inevitably something has to give. You can't just keep losing people at the record amounts you're losing them."