It’s a practice that’s costing New Jersey taxpayers millions of dollars every year and it’s perfectly legal.
Of the 21 sheriffs serving in the Garden State, 17 collect both a full-time salary and a public pension simultaneously. Critics of the compensation arrangement call it “double-dipping.”
Though Gov. Chris Christie has pushed through pension reforms, including increased health-care contributions and a higher retirement age for new hires, his changes have not addressed public officials who collect taxpayer-funded salaries and pensions at the same time.
Even one very popular sheriff, who collects both a public salary and pension, told the News 4 I-Team it’s a problem.
“Does it look bad? Yes, no question about it,” said Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura. “It looks bad, but was it legal? Yes. Was it above-board? Yes. Was it a secret? No, I don’t keep any secrets from the public.”
Fontoura, 69, officially retired from the Essex County Sheriff’s Department on the Friday before Labor Day weekend in 1990. At the time, he was an undersheriff.
Three days later, on Labor Day, Fontoura was re-hired by the department at the exact same salary, but with a new title – sheriff’s officer chief.
“I did that to better take care of my family. That’s all. No other reason,” said Fontoura.
According to the nonprofit investigative website NewJerseyWatchDog.org, the Essex County Sheriff is just one of many double-dippers in New Jersey, many of whom work in law enforcement.
“There are hundreds of double-dippers and its costing millions of dollars,” “said Mark Lagerkvist, who runs the website.
In addition to the 17 sheriffs, Lagerkvist says there are 34 undersheriffs who are also double-dipping.
“Why do we build a system that gives such powerful incentives to public employees to retire at an early age, get astronomical pensions and … go back to the public payroll?” said Lagerkvist. “It doesn’t make sense. If a private business did that, the CEO would be fired immediately.”
State Sen. Jennifer Beck said just because the scheme is allowable doesn't make it good for taxpayers.
Beck is sponsoring legislation to ban double-dipping. Her plan would ban any public employee earning more than $15,000 a year to simultaneously collect a public pension.
“When the pensions were structured, it was supposed to be that you’re retired and not working any longer,” said Beck. “It wasn’t that you go out and find another job and collect two sources of income.”
It’s a plan Fontoura said he would get behind.
“I support that 100 percent. I have no difficulty with that,” said Fontoura, who insists his case was not intentional and that he was planning to move into the private sector when he retired in 1990.
Records show Fontoura had officially resigned and retired on Aug. 31, 1990. But three weeks earlier – on Aug. 7 – he had already re-applied for the same job he was about to quit.
Still, Fontoura told the I-Team it was over that Labor Day weekend that the new opportunity arose and, after consulting with his family, he took it.
“I said, as long as I can do this legally, without breaking any law and I can collect my pension and augment it with a salary, that’s fine. I’ll do this,” said Fontoura.
With others in the department moving on or moving up, Fontoura was appointed sheriff in early 1991 and has won every election since.
He is now running for an eighth term.
Fontoura’s opponent in the upcoming election is Orlando Mendez. who is also a public retiree collecting a pension.
If elected, he would get a full-time salary and pension simultaneously.