The ranks of New Jersey's double dippers - government employees who hold more than one job-continued to decline in 2012, falling by 16 percent.
But those workers received substantial raises last year, with their average salaries rising 4 percent, according to a review of government pension and payroll data by the Asbury Park Press of Neptune.
The top earner was Edward L. Kerwin, tax assessor for nine towns in Somerset, Warren, Morris and Hunterdon counties. Kerwin was paid $362,186 last year, an increase of about 1 percent over his 2011 pay. President Barack Obama is paid just a bit more, at $400,000 a year. But Kerwin more than doubles Gov. Chris Christie's $175,000 salary.
All totaled 210 of the 418,000 local, county, state, police, fire and state employees were paid more than Christie last year by holding two or more public jobs.
Derided by some politicians and political activists who accuse them of "gaming the system," double dippers not only earn large salaries. Some are allowed to add their multiple salaries together to gain a larger pension when they retire, a practice known as pension padding.
"Obviously any reasonable person understands it's physically impossible to cover these multiple positions," said Jerry Cantrell, president of the Common Sense Institute of New Jersey, a taxpayer advocacy group. "At some point in time we have to stop making excuses and put the cards on the table and do something to stop it."
Others argue that government employees who hold more than one job are actually saving towns money. Eight of the top 10 double dippers in 2012 were finance officers, tax assessors or tax collectors, highly specialized jobs that require multiple certifications and continuing education.
The other two are two municipal court judges from Ocean County, Damian G. Murray — who serves as a judge in seven different towns — and James Liguori, Toms River's judge who also works as a magistrate in four other towns. Murray was paid $272,300, and Liguori, $243,948.
"There is a cost factor and an experience factor you have to take into consideration," said William G. Dressel Jr., executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. "A lot of these officials have years of service, and that means not only the certification and license that hangs on the wall, but years of professional experience, that's going to benefit the community."
Dressel said that for many of the state's smaller towns, hiring an experienced tax assessor or tax collector on a part-time basis is actually a cost-saving measure. Towns where such finance professionals work part-time do not have to pay for their healthcare benefits, he said, and they have no need of a full-time assessor or tax collector.
New Jersey requires towns to hire certified professionals in areas like finance, tax collection and purchasing. Rigorous certification requirements mean those employees are often in demand to complete work on budgets or property assessments for small towns that may not have enough work to justify hiring someone full-time.
"It has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis," Dressel said. "When we're talking about reducing salaries and pension benefits and things of that nature, and you're looking at the possibility of having to hire another individual, it can be more effective for towns to share officials through inter-local agreements."
Last year, 646 double dippers were paid more than $100,000, down from 705 in 2011. That's a nine percent decline. The total number of double dippers, as well as the number with salaries over $100,000, has dropped steadily over the past few years.
Brick Administrator Scott Pezarras also serves as tax assessor in Lavallette, Keyport and Ocean Gate. Last year in was paid $236,069 for his work. In 2011, he was paid $230,000. Pezarras said the administrator's job is full-time, while the assessor's jobs in the three smaller towns are part-time positions.
"Obviously you don't have to be there five or six days a week," Pezarras said of the assessors' jobs. He said following superstorm Sandy, he worked many 80-hour weeks, dealing with storm-related issues in Brick and assessment issues in the other towns, as many property owners sought reductions in their assessments after the storm damaged their homes and businesses.
"In your normal course of business, you probably work 55 to 60 hours a week," Pezarras said. "It's whatever it takes."
He said the smaller towns only need an assessor on a part-time basis. "A lot of this work can be done with computers. If you put the hours in, you can do the job."
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie, said the governor introduced "sweeping ethics reform proposals" when he first took office. Christie's initiatives included a ban on dual public employment for elected officials.
But so far, "the Legislature has shown no interest whatsoever in acting on them," Drewniak said.
"The fact is, Gov. Christie announced this as part of his ethics reform proposals all the way back in September 2010. To this day, the legislative leadership has shown that it has no appetite whatsoever in adopting simple, common sense ethics reform...What exactly is their aversion to ethics reform?"
A bill that would close a loophole and bar elected officials from holding any other elective office was introduced March 16, 2010, and referred to the Assembly State Government Committee., where it died. Officials who held more than one elected office on Sept. 4, 2001, were grandfathered in and allowed to continue serving in more than one office even though a ban on dual office-holding for elected officials went into effect in 2007.
Yet that bill would not have banned municipal employees from holding multiple jobs.
Christie, a Republican, has been critical of dual officeholders, particularly the three jobs held by North Bergen Mayor Nicholas J. Sacco, who also serves as a Democratic state senator and assistant superintendent of schools in his community. His total pay last year: $300,062, up from the $295,426 in 2011.
At a Feb. 27 town hall meeting in Montville, Christie noted that those who hold multiple government jobs will also be paid a pension based on earnings from all their positions when they retire.
"Let's stop this," Christie said. "No more than one public job. No more than one public office. I don't think it's that hard a concept to deal with...It's an old part of this state's history. It should go away."
Dressel, of the League of Municipalities, said his group does not oppose the practice of allowing employees to garner pensions based on multiple jobs.
"In most cases that we've been aware of over the years, by sharing the costs of having capable professional employees provide these kinds of services, there is a savings for towns," he said.
Pezarras noted that municipal officials selected him for his assessor's jobs through a competitive interview process. The towns where he works part-time do not pay him health benefits, which instead come through his full-time job in Brick. If three other people held the assessor's jobs, they would still be qualified for a pension, he said.
"If there were four people that were in the four jobs, they would all be getting a pension," he said. "They'd be paying out the same amount of money."