As reported by, more than 20,000 police officers, firefighters, teachers, and other public employees put in their retirement papers last year as momentum was building for sweeping health and pension reform in Trenton, state figures show. That is a 60 percent jump from 2009 retirements and the highest in at least a decade, according to the Division of Pension and Benefits.

Under nearly all the reform proposals circulating in Trenton, public employees would pay more for pension and health benefits, but would escape the additional costs if they retire before the reforms were enacted. “There has been a direct assault on the benefits that public employees have earned and fought for over the last 40 years,” said Dominick Marino, president of the state chapter of the International Association of Firefighters. “People were attracted to these jobs because of the certainty, now there is no certainty, and people are retiring.”

While those who put in retirement papers can opt to stay, the vast majority retire, officials say. Of the 20,327 public employees who put in for retirement, more than half were state and local workers. Specifically, retirement among police and firefighters swelled by 45 percent. Overall, 7,132 teachers retired last year. In the decade before, no more than 4,872 teachers called it quits in any given year, records show.

Pension and health benefit reform will be high on the agenda in Trenton this spring. Governor Chris Christie wants all public employees, state and local, to begin paying 30 percent of their health insurance premiums starting next fiscal year. Currently, public employees are required to pay at least 1.5 percent of their salary toward health benefits.

Christie has warned that if Democratic lawmakers refuse to go along with his proposal, or a similar plan, he would not be able to deliver an additional $190 million in property tax relief to seniors and middle-to-low income residents. State Senator Stephen Sweeney wants to phase in the increases over seven years and apply the rates on a sliding scale based on a employee’s salary. Under Christie’s plan, a teacher who makes a $66,000 salary would pay about $5,200 a year for health insurance. Under Sweeney’s plan, the same teacher would pay about $3,610.

In general, public employees with 25 years of service can retire and receive medical benefits at no cost, but that would change under both Sweeney’s and Christie’s plan. Current retirees, including those who retire before any proposal is enacted, would be protected from the changes. However, Christie has suggested he is willing to make some adjustments retroactive, even if it prompts a legal challenge.