By Charlotte Huffman
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Imagine retiring, collecting a huge pension and then returning to the same office to collect a six-figure paycheck too.
It is a sweet deal for some law enforcement officers and taxpayers are footing the bill.
A joint investigation by Eyewitness News and the New Jersey Watchdog found double-dipping sheriffs in 16 of New Jersey’s 21 counties including Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Mercer and Salem counties.
Mercer County’s Sheriff Jack Kemler is the fourth highest earning double-dipper in the state.
Sheriff Kemler earns $142,499 dollars a year in salary on top of collecting $84,831 dollars a year from his pension as a retired law enforcement officer for a grand total of $227,330 dollars a year.
When Sheriff Kemler’s office ignored Eyewitness News’ multiple requests for an interview, the I-Team tracked him down at a cocktail fundraiser for his re-election.
“I have a cocktail party to go to, thank you,” he said before deciding to answer questions from Investigative Reporter, Charlotte Huffman.
Six years ago, Sheriff Kemler said he was going to retire from his position as undersheriff.
Technically, he did retire but only for 30 days. Then, Sheriff Kemler went right back to work in a different position at the same county office he retired from. He was later appointed acting Sheriff and eventually elected Sheriff.
“These are calculated deals,” said Mark Lagerkvist of the New Jersey Watchdog, a non-profit investigative news site.
Taxpayers say double-dipping is lucrative and many are outraged.
“Why should I work and pay you twice!” said Mutrell McLean of Camden County.
Camden County’s Sheriff Charles Billingham earns $219,232 a year from his pension and salary.
“That makes me so angry. Why do they have the right to double dip and get all that money and here I am struggling trying to live my single parent life?” said Kim Weiler, also of Camden County.
More than two weeks after Eyewitness News requested an interview with Sheriff Billingham, he has yet to return the station’s phone calls.
Salem County’s Sheriff Charles Miller also failed to return Eyewitness News’ phone calls about his double-dipping.
On average, each double-dipping sheriff in New Jersey collects $203,852 dollars a year from pensions and salaries.
“The interesting thing is a lot of these double-dipping sheriffs then wind up appointing their undersheriffs who also are double-dippers because they are also retired. It is sort of an inside deal,” said Lagerkvist.
It is also an expensive deal.
The state’s pension system faces a $51 billion dollar debt.
While controversial, the practice of double dipping is legal in New Jersey.
In January, state lawmakers introduced a bill to stop the practice.
Senate Bill 883 would suspend the pension of any retired public employee who resumes public employment with compensation more than $15,000 dollars a year.
During a January interview with Senator Jennifer Beck who co-sponsored S883, Sen. Beck told Eyewitness News’ Huffman, “I’m confident it will pass this session.”
But almost a year after the bill was introduced; it has not made any progress. Instead, it just sits in the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee.
“I know a lot of our legislators are double dippers too so I don’t think it is gonna happen. We’re stuck,” said Neil Tucker of Camden County.
Next week, voters in Mercer County can decide for themselves whether double-dipping is right.
“It is my way of doing my part to be able to fix the system or begin to fix the system,” said David Jones.
Jones who like Sheriff Kemler, also spent about 27 years in law enforcement is running against Kemler for Mercer County Sheriff.
Jones has made double dipping a campaign issue.
“One Sheriff, One Paycheck,” his campaign slogan reads.
If elected, the former state trooper says he’ll give up his $90,000 dollar a year pension and promises he won’t appoint any double-dipping undersheriffs.
Jones believes a change in Mercer County will cause a domino effect and force other county sheriffs to follow suit.
“It is a way for the voters to get their elected officials to take notice to see what has happened around them and say to themselves, ‘I can be next. I can be the next one voted out of office because I did not make this change,” said Jones.
Even though public employees make contributions into their pension the state still funds the majority of it.
Kemler has collected roughly $400,000 dollars in pension payments.
“I paid eight and a half percent of my salary into that pension system just like you do with your 401K … If I’m elected I’m going to continue being sheriff. I think I do a great job and I think my office does a great job. I don’t see a problem with this,” said Kemler.
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