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Letter: Della Fera Responds to Haas' Comments

The Chair of the Town Council’s Finance Policy Committee addresses the recent report issued by the Office of the State Comptroller and Westfield's response to it.

With his reckless and turns on its head the Mayor’s Town Council’s hard and continuing work to reduce costs and save taxpayer dollars whenever reasonably possible. Ignoring the fact that the municipal budget today is less than it was four years ago, he sacrifices on the altar of political gain the reputations of professionals who served the Town of Westfield with distinction. Mr. Haas also indicts all but one of the Council members with which he has served over the years, each of whom he accuses not only of helping the Town’s professionals to “game the system” but also, incredibly, to “bankrupt the pension system for all of the legitimate care full-time employees.” Needless to say, the facts do not support Mr. Haas’ hyperbole. But facts never get in the way of a good story, or a better headline. For those that agree that facts do matter, I offer them here.

Mr. Haas is intentionally misleading, at worst, and simply wrong, at best, when he asserts that according to the July 17, 2012 report (Report) of the Office of the State Comptroller (OSC), “about 60% of the communities in NJ” were in compliance with the law “and had no part-time attorneys in the pension system after 2007.” The Report clearly states that it surveyed only 58 of 1,170 local units in the state, and that in the OSC’s view 57 of them were not compliant. The Report goes on to note – twice – that “OSC conservatively estimates that a review of the remaining 515 municipalities and 597 school districts not included in our survey could yield hundreds of additional professionals inappropriately enrolled” in the public pension system. Thus, Mr. Haas’ statement that Westfield was “in the 40% minority of municipalities which got the wrong legal answer on this issue” is pure fiction.

Councilman Haas’ fuzzy math notwithstanding, the OSC concluded in its July 17, 2012 report (Report) that more than 98% of the local units – municipalities and school districts – that it surveyed were not complying with the State’s current interpretation of the pension reform law passed in 2007 and effective on January 1, 2008. In other words, nearly every town and school board surveyed, of all socio-economic and political stripes, including Westfield, interpreted the 2007 law the same way. Until last month, there had been no indication whatsoever that that interpretation was incorrect. Indeed, even now, not a single Town of Westfield professional has been found to have received pension benefits improperly; but why wait for a formal and final determination of the facts when there are political points to score.

As Councilman Haas is aware, it is the State of New Jersey, not the Town of Westfield, that mandates who must enroll in the State pension system and in what plan. Prior to the enactment of the 2007 law, the State required all non-seasonal, non-police and fire employees earning over $1,500 per year and not collecting another government pension to enroll in the State’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) as a condition of employment. Any governmental entity that did not comply was penalized. The 2007 reforms established new enrollment thresholds for PERS and also created a new pension plan, the Defined Contribution Retirement Program (DCRP), for local appointees and new employees who do not meet the new PERS thresholds. Since the law went into effect, Westfield uniformly has applied the new enrollment criteria and all new hires and appointees are properly enrolled in the pension plan prescribed by the State. Mr. Haas does not and cannot allege otherwise.

As to the Town’s professionals that were enrolled in PERS before January 1, 2008, the Town of Westfield carefully considered the new law and followed in good faith the instructions included in a notice about it issued by the State in December, 2007. That notice specifically provided that “[a]n individual who was a member of PERS prior to July 1, 2007 may continue their PERS membership when appointed to a DCRP position, if the person has ‘continuously’ been a member since that time.” Accordingly, five part-time employees who were then providing professional services to the Town, and who had been receiving the PERS pension benefit all along as part of their compensation, continued to do so. When the OSC’s Report was issued last month, only one of those employees was still serving the Town. The Report was the first time that the State has ever taken a position contrary to the guidance it had given since 2007.

The Report does not name any individuals and only “recommends” that the Division of Pensions and Benefits review the pension credits accrued by the type of professionals referenced therein. Notwithstanding, the sole remaining part-time Town employee enrolled in PERS has now resigned that position. He did so not “because of the publicity” surrounding the OSC Report, as Councilman Haas maliciously presumes, but because it is now apparent that the State believes he is not eligible to be enrolled in that program. Contrary to Mr. Haas’ baseless accusations, Westfield’s professionals, like its elected officials, endeavor to follow the rules. To suggest otherwise is fallacious and petty.

In its simplest terms, the pension issue rests upon who is an “employee” of the Town eligible for PERS benefits and who is an ineligible “independent contractor.” That determination is made using criteria promulgated by the IRS. As Mr. Haas belatedly acknowledges in his press release – after he bothered to inquire about it – “[w]e did the appropriate analysis ... it was done as required….  We sent our analysis to the Division of Pension Benefits [sic] recently for them to review in their investigation of the people from Westfield that might be affected. So we have responded appropriately to the [R]eport – even before my comments reached the public.”  In other words, Councilman Haas should look before he leaps, and certainly before he defames good and honest people.

Reasonable minds may differ about who is an employee under IRS guidelines and who is not, and also who among those employed on January 1, 2008 was eligible for PERS pension benefits and who was not. Indeed, the clarification from the State in the Report appears long overdue, given the complexity of the issues and that 57 of 58 entities similarly interpreted the law. But it is grossly unfair for Councilman Haas to suggest that the Town’s dedicated professionals and its elected officials were complicit in an effort to defraud taxpayers. The Mayor and Town Council consistently strive to ensure that taxpayer money is not “wasted.” That is why we recently refinanced outstanding bonds at a substantially lower interest rate, saving taxpayers more than $180,000 over the next five years; that is why we have made the difficult decisions that enabled us to lower the municipal budget for three years in a row; and that is why we have reduced the number of Town employees by 20% since 2006 and overall salaries and wages to below 2005 levels. In contrast, Councilman Haas would have the Town replace a long-awaited, highly effective, and fully functioning pedestrian traffic signal on Central Avenue -- truly a senseless waste of taxpayer money. Those are the facts.

The professionals and elected officials who honorably serve and have served Westfield deserve better than to have their motives questioned and their good faith actions described as “wrong and illegal” by a colleague looking to score political points. As on this page, the Report concludes with recommendations, not indictments. Westfield did not “miss the boat” on the change in the 2007 pension law; its officials thoroughly reviewed the 46-page statute and related guidance from the State, and reached the same conclusion as nearly every other municipality that did the same. Notwithstanding Councilman Haas’ skepticism, the Mayor and Town Council will continue to make decisions in good conscience, based upon the best information available, and will continue to be good stewards of taxpayer funds.

Sam Della Fera, Jr.

Chair of the Town Council’s Finance Policy Committee

Sam Politically Posturing August 02, 2012 at 03:44 PM
Della Fera ........ BLOWHARD! Positioning himself for Mayor of Westfield. The municipal budget is less now than it was four years ago because you have reduced staffing levels to a point where some departments can't function at appropriate levels. Taxpayers shouldering the sewer fee and non-existent capital improvements will undoubtedly lower a municipal budget. Della Fera is a Gov. Christie appointee looking to score political points for his future. Asl Cockren why he suddenly retired last year when his pension was under heavy scrutiny. Nothing like bolting in the nick of time.
Keith August 02, 2012 at 04:18 PM
Good Job Sam ! Thank you for this excellent report on the facts. It seems that our great town now has it's own "Chuck Schumer", of which I am sure he is proud. As sad as that is for NY, it's even sadder for us. Keep up your spirits and thank you for the excellent public service you provide to an overwhelmingly supportive and respectful number of town residence, of which I am one.
Pointy hat August 02, 2012 at 04:59 PM
If I may paraphrase......blah, blah, everybody was doing it. Blah, blah, it's the states fault. Blah, blah fuzzy math. Blah, blah partisanship. Blah, blah IRS, blah blah honorably serving using good faith. End of day, they dropped the ball and don't have enough of what they dropped to admit it.
Blah Blah Blah August 02, 2012 at 05:40 PM
Sam Della Fera wasn't on the council when the fleecing took place. How easy for him to take a stance. How about some of the other council people that were part of the lining of town attorneys pockets stand up. Town attorneys are an appointed position like Councilman Loughlin's father and Cockren. Nothing like taking care of one another on the backs of taxpayers.
Blah Blah Blah August 02, 2012 at 05:42 PM
Speak for yourself Keith as far as the supportive residents. You did mean residents, right Keith? or is it residence as you stated?
A.John Blake August 03, 2012 at 01:13 PM
Did anyone note that Mr.Della Fera never proclaimed Westfield's innocence.He tried the old defense that The Town was one of many.He tells us that the IRS criteria is confusing. He doesn't mention that the five professionals " used" by the Town in 2007 were hired yearly under a PSC and were specifically barred by the statute without reference to the IRS. If you had to go to the IRS, it states that if the lawyer has a private practice, he is probably not an employee. This is not "brain surgery". Mr.DellaFera makes no mention of the other four lawyers allowed to run up time in the pension system using Westfield's mistake.All Mr. dellaFera says is that, because of his desire to follow the rules, the remaining fifth attorney withdrew from the system. May we assume that Mr. Della Fera will check with the other four to determine if, in their desire to follow the rules, they have sought a review of the legitimacy of their time in the system? It will be interesting to hear the results from the State. Since Mr.Della Fera seeks facts, may we ask if he intends to determine if all five professionals on the books in 2007, were retained under PSC's and barred or if he will rely on the same persons who did the belated analysis to the State? A.John Blake
john mancini August 03, 2012 at 02:00 PM
It`s to bad Elizabeth Alterman could not have added Mr. Della Fera`s comments in her first article. To those who call our fellow neighbors derogatory names, stop it. You may have something important to say however most people like me do not take your comments seriously because of the name calling. I do not know who`s correct but may be Mr. Haas and Dell Fera could set up a round table and the residence of the town can hear both sides and hopefully fix it if it needs to be fix. Then Ms. Alterman can report the facts from both men without her bias.
Elizabeth Alterman (Editor) August 03, 2012 at 02:26 PM
Mr. Mancini, this letter was sent yesterday, therefore I could not have posted it in the same article. I post information as I receive it.

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