Gov. Chris Christie addressed a room of more than 800 people at the Pine Brook Jewish Center in Montville Wednesday, speaking largely about local issues in the context of his Middle-Class Reform Agenda.
Christie began by telling the audience that he was pleased to be hosting his 101st town hall meeting, the first he's done in six weeks, in his home county of Morris. He said he even got to sleep in as his wife, Mary Pat, asked why he wasn't getting up.
"My first bit of business is in Montville at 10:30. Amen," Christie said he told his wife.
While the bulk of Christie's remarks regarded reform he would like to see throughout the state, including an end to sick time payouts, a strict adherence of municipalities to 2 percent spending caps and the necessity of shared services, he focused his energy on what the agenda means on the local level. The governor said municipal leaders, or, "crafty mayors," as he called them, have gotten in the habit of imposing "user fees" as a way to bring in money beyond the 2 percent spending cap that determines what municipalities can collect from residents in taxes.
"You can call it whatever you want — it's gotta fit under the cap," he said.
Christie reflected on a property tax growth cap imposed by former Gov. Jon Corzine's administration — a 4 percent cap with 23 exceptions, he said. Under the Christie administration's growth cap, only four exceptions are allowed to fall beyond the 2 percent: pension costs, health insurance costs, a municipality's debt and costs associated with state-declared emergencies, such as superstorm Sandy.
In 2011, Christie said, his administration also took a closer look at two of the exceptions, pension costs and health care reform, including by increasing the retirement age and the penalties associated with retiring early.
This year, Christie said he will continue what he has started in chipping away at debt across the state. This will be done, he said, with help from the 2 percent cap. At the same time, the governor expressed confidence that his Middle-Class Reform Agenda will help taxpayers individually feel relief.
"What we need to do is make sure that we stop this craziness of paying people for not being sick," Christie said of ending accumulated sick time payouts.
He first blasted the mayor of Atlantic City, calling the city one of "the most bankrupt, ridiculous municipal governments in America." He noted Mayor Lorenzo Langford's recent $16,000 raise (which Christie said the mayor voted for himself) and said that as 15 public employees have recently retired in Atlantic City, the total dollar amount in sick time payouts is "$2.2 million of taxpayer, property tax dollars."
"We've had towns that have literally had to borrow, they’ve had to take out bonds to pay these jokers off," he said.
This scenario is also happening closer to home and right in Morris County, according to Christie.
"Parsippany's been victim to this too. They had four police officers retiring at the same time. They have checks totaling $900,000 for the four of them," he said.
Instead of paying retirees for sick time, the governor said he'd like to allow colleagues to donate their own unused sick time to those who are in need, have fallen ill and used up all of their existing time, for example.
"We're people with heart, so if you have extra sick days and... if you want to donate your sick days to them, that’s fine," he said.
He also poked fun at the current system in place.
"We should have a little party down at town hall [for retirees], in Parsippany for example. Every person who lives in Parsippany gets to come in with their check for their share of the money. At least then you’d get a 'thank you,'" he said. "The fact is, it would be funny if it weren’t true."
As for shared services, he used the town he lives in, Mendham, as an example of where resources can be pooled.
"Where I live, in Mendham Township, I am a mile and a quarter closer to the Mendham Borough Police Department than I am to the Mendham Township Police Department. If I call for police assistance, the borough should come because, hell, they’ll get there two minutes closer, right? No," he said.
He asked why one department could not just be formed-the Mendham Police Department. But when the issue was raised in the town, he said it was rejected and to taxpayers in Morris and other counties, lack of shared services add up.
"Every one of these add expense to you," he said.
In regards to a question raised by Montville resident Jen Kayne about where the governor stands on the development of the Susquehanna-Roseland power line project, which runs through 45 miles of the state, including through Montville, Kinnelon, Jefferson, Hopatcong, Boonton and Rockaway, Christie acknowledged residents' concerns but also explained that something needed to be done in response to one of the biggest issues raised following both Tropical Storm Irene and superstorm Sandy.
"The biggest complaint from everybody was what? 'When's my power coming back on?' he said. "You've got to make the infrastructure that delivers the power stronger, bigger, harder to sustain the type of storms that we're now seeming to get on a regular basis," he said.
Christie also touched on a few federal issues, including the looming sequestration deadline approaching Friday. Christie accused President Barack Obama of being "stuck in his ways" and said there is no excuse for fighting on the issue.
"We have to find ways to compromise," he said.