Five judges retiring after pay hike boosts pensions

Why not? If I had Corzine as a friend, I can retire too….

TRENTON — Because of the pay raise approved this month, retiring Superior Court judges can see their pensions boosted by $6,000 a year if they work one day this year.

Under pension rules, judges of the supreme, superior or tax courts who are fully vested in the system can collect 75 percent of their final salary. So when Gov. Jon S. Corzine and the Legislature increased their pay 5 percent from $149,000 to $157,000 this month, they also hiked veteran judges’ pensions from about $112,000 to $118,000.

At least five Superior Court judges have indicated they plan to retire by April 1 during the two weeks since the pay raise was approved by the Legislature. In recent years, about 22 judges have retired annually in New Jersey.

“I wasn’t hanging fire because I needed a certain number, it’s just that I knew it would go up,” retiring Superior Court Judge Paul T. Koenig Jr. said. “And why would I retire the first of October when I knew there was say a 50-50 chance that we might get another pay raise either January or July? That was the rumor. And I figured in my situation it was worth waiting to see what was going to happen.”

According to pension estimates, Koenig who is slated to retire Friday from his Mercer County post, will collect a pension of $112,569 — reduced from the maximum of $118,000 because of various benefit options he selected.

In addition to Koenig, whose decision has postponed the trial date of a whistle-blower suit against the Board of Public Utilities, four other judges have signaled they will retire by April 1: Joseph C. Visalli in Cape May County, Maryann Bielamowicz and Neil Shuster in Mercer County and John J. Harper in Morris County.

“It was a consideration, that didn’t put me over the top,” Visalli said of how the pay raise factored into his plan to retire April 1. “I like what I’m doing. I always liked it. I enjoyed doing it and it’s very hard to separate.”

The multiplying effect of pay raises on pensions is one of the reasons some Republicans protested the measure when it was approved last session.

“The way the law is written judges only have to stay for one day at the higher salary and their pension is based on the higher salary,” said Assemblywoman Marcia Karrow, R-Hunterdon, adding this remains “pretty much for the rest of their life.”

Koenig plans to spend the next phase of his life in Florida, where he owns a home and his wife has wintered for the past few years.

“My wife is retired and lives in Florida, and I figured it was time for me to spend more time there,” Koenig said.

Judges, county prosecutors, and county constitutional officers such as clerks and sheriffs were granted raises under a law signed by Gov. Jon S. Corzine Jan. 14, a week after both houses of the Legislature approved the bill.

This followed a separate raise granted judges last summer in the annual budget that raised pay for Superior Court judges from $141,000 to $149,000. That number increased under the new law to $157,000 and will rise to $165,000 next January.

The net effect is that top pensions for Superior Court judges will rise from $105,750 in 2007 to $123,750 next year — a 17 percent increase.

The pay raises were pushed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, who argued the raises were needed to keep quality judges and give them pay in line with federal judges. The Senate voted 25-13 and the Assembly 51-26 for the raises.

“This increase is vital to ensuring the continued exceptional quality of our Judiciary and the retention of our experienced judges,” Corzine wrote in a statement when signing the law.

Gregory J. Volpe:

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