As reported by, the leader of the state Senate says pension and health care benefits for public safety workers cost an average of $47,000 a year, an ever-increasing amount that will bankrupt local governments unless workers start paying more. Senate President Stephen Sweeney released the figures from the Municipal Managers Association, on the eve of a public safety rally that could draw up to 10,000 off duty police and firefighters to the Statehouse to protest staffing cuts and proposed benefit changes.

Sweeney, a Democrat, has been called out by public safety union leaders who vehemently oppose his proposed health care changes, which are similar to what Republican Governor Chris Christie has proposed. Sweeney and Christie insist they are attempting to keep the pension and health benefits systems solvent, not hurt workers.

The public unions say Christie is breaking a promise not to tinker with their retirement benefits and the most powerful Democrat in the Legislature is going along. The pension and health benefits systems are significantly underfunded. The pension funds for police and firefighters, teachers, judges and state, county, and municipal workers are underfunded by $54 billion. The health care system is underfunded by $67 billion.

Public sector workers now pay 1.5 percent of their salaries toward healthcare. They pay varying percentages of their salaries toward pensions: judges pay 3 percent, teachers put in 5.5 percent, state police 7.5 percent and police and firefighters 8.5 percent.

Sweeney’s proposal would expand the number of available health insurance plans, and it calls for workers to contribute 12 percent to 30 percent of the cost of the premium, depending on their income. The plan would be phased in over seven years for families and four years for single-coverage employees. Those making up to $30,000 a year would be expected to pay up to 12 percent of their premiums at full phase-in, while those making $100,000 or more would be required to contribute 30 percent. Sweeney’s plan shields retirees, but would require future retirees to contribute a fixed amount each year, between $2,280 and $5,700, based on pension level.

Christie wants benefits changes that make the health insurance system more like the private sector or the federal government, with employees paying about one-third of the costs of whatever benefits plan they choose and the government picking up the other two-thirds. Automatic cost-of-living increases would be eliminated.

Sweeney and Christie also have offered pension reform proposals. Christie wants employees to work longer before retiring and wants to raise the pension contribution to 8.5 percent of salary for all workers. Sweeney’s bill would create labor management boards to set workers’ annual pension contributions based on the solvency of the system. His bill affects prospective and non-vested employees but does not try to change benefits for vested workers or retirees. Sweeney acknowledges that he does not have support from a number of Democrats in his caucus. A compromise could squeak through the Senate with support from all 16 Republicans and 5 Democrats.