Cutting Costs and Alienating People With New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

christie on letterman

NJ Governor Chris Christie munches a donut on Late Night with David Letterman, because watching fat people eat unhealthy food is funny.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is a hard man to love.

Since taking the state’s top office in January, Christie has managed to tick off state workers at all levels. His “tough-love” budget cuts and ultra-conservative fiscal approach has raised the ire of teachers, school employees, public servants, police officers and elected officials, including some within his own party.

Ticking people off isn’t necessarily a bad thing. State spending was out of control and the new guv promised to reign in the budget. You can’t cut spending without upsetting someone. The difference here is that Christie seems to have upset everyone.

Personal Politics

All politics is local, personal. Your opinions are formed by how government affects you, your family, and your lifestyle. So when Christie’s reduction in school funding threatened my sister’s teaching job in South Jersey and the jobs of the classroom aides in my son’s special ed class, I jumped on the Christie-hater bandwagon.

We’ve seen this cut-from-the-bottom act before in both the government and private sector. Workers on the bottom of the pay scale lose wages and benefits, “money-men” don’t lose a dime, and the budget never gets balanced. To clean up an old adage, “fecal matter rolls downhill” and all too often employees in the foothills find themselves with the dirty end of the stick.

But like a crazed monkey, Governor Christie is flinging feces everywhere, and Jerseyans of every socio-economic class are feeling the effects. (Feel free to make a “900-pound gorilla” joke here at Christie’s expense…as a fellow fat man I can’t go there.) In a rare show of political might, Christie is actually rolling feces uphill, and those at top of the ladder are getting dirty, too.

Christie aggravated school administrators by proposing a salary cap for superintendents based on the size of the districts they serve. Under Christie’s proposal, the maximum salary for a superintendent in a K-8 district would be $120,000, and districts with student populations up to 10,000 would be capped at $175,000. Supers overseeing bigger school districts would be eligible for a bigger salary. According to the state, NJ would save $9.8 million a year by enacting a salary cap for superintendents.

Costello Cashes Out

One of the more recent victims of Christie’s financial belt-tightening is West Milford Police Chief Paul Costello, who announced a quickie retirement the first of the month in order to preserve his six-figure benefits package. Governor Christie is pushing legislation that caps compensation for accrued sick time at $15,000 and impacts retirement benefits for state employees working without a contract. If the legislation is approved, Costello could lose part of his annual $100,000 retirement benefits as well as a hefty check for his unused sick time. To avoid being caught by the proposed legislation, Costello opted to quickly retire on August 1.

Chief Costello deserves every penny of his retirement/benefits package. He served the Borough of West Milford for 36 years, also serving as president of the Passaic County Police Chiefs Association. He’s a great police officer and it’s a shame to see him go.

But it’s hard to feel sorry for him. Retired at age 57, with a hefty pension and lifetime benefits, former Chief Costello has more security than many of his peers.

Chris Christie shouts

Chris Christie’s budget cuts and salary caps have angered employees in all branches of state government … but wouldn’t it be funny if I Photoshopped a big, drippy ice cream cone into the Governor’s hand in this photo?

What’s Your Job Worth?

The same can be said for the school superintendents who earn well over six figures. Shouldn’t teachers who educate children be paid as much, if not more, than administrators who manage them? After all, Yankee manager Joe Girardi earns $2.5 million per year while his star player, Alex Rodriguez, earns more than ten times that. Giaradi is a fine manager, worth every penny, but Rodriguez hits homers that win ballgames and bring in fans. He’s paid big bucks because he’s got “the skillz that pay the bills.”  I’m not sure why superintendents, principals, business managers and other school administrators make so much more than the teachers and classroom aides who do the actual hands-on work of educating children.

This disparity in pay scale isn’t a New Jersey problem; it’s a global one. How much you earn should relate to a) the difficulty/danger of the job, b) how much specialized training or education you need to do the job, c) your ability to do the job well, and d) experience/length of employment.

But that’s not the case in the real world. What people earn doesn’t always make sense based on what they do. To paraphrase another old adage, “there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians.” The government and private sector alike are rife with overpaid administrative paper-pushers. Governor Christie recognizes this and is trying to bring these bloated salaries back down to earth.

But, while Christie is making a difference as the Garden State’s 55th Governor, he’s not making many friends. For better or for worse, don’t expect to see him around for a second term.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, August 2010

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