BELMAR, N.J. — Pension reform is going to involve breaking some promises, including reducing benefits that public employees were counting on for their retirement, Gov. Chris Christie acknowledged during a town hall event in Belmar Wednesday.
It was an exchange with Jean Toher, a technology teacher at at Shark River Hills Elementary in Neptune, that drew the governor into the heart of the pension debate that he has reignited in recent weeks.
"When I started working, I started at a salary of $12,800," said Toher, who's been paying into the pension system since 1980. "Part of the reason a lot of us accepted those low salaries all those years is because we had a benefit and we negotiated that benefit all those years."
Christie, earlier invoked the D-word ("Detroit") to demonstrate how dire the situation is, saying that he doubted taxes could raise enough revenue to cover the state's future pension obligations. They must reduce benefits, he said.
"There's a lot of emotion that goes along with this issue, but the facts are pretty simple," he said. "The facts are that this pension will go bankrupt if we don't make significant changes to it."
The governor said repeatedly that retirees wouldn't be affected, but he added that whatever plan he puts forth to the Legislature at the end of the summer will involve sacrifice from public employees.
"I can't make assurances to every person that is currently in the system that they are going to get the benefits they were promised. There's plenty of money that you're going to paid what you were promised from now until the end," he said to Toher. "But the fact is that for people in the system now, if I were tell them that they were guaranteed to get the payments they were promised I would be lying."
The spat was the most relevant to Christie's series of town halls that he has been promoting as "No Pain, No Gain" — the name of this particular tour and a reference to his renewed call to reduce retirement benefits for public employees.
It couldn't have been a more pleasant day in Belmar and a mostly respectful crowd of a few hundred greeted Christie with a mixture of boos and applause.
His first stop on the tour — last week on Long Beach Island — was outdrawn by a nearby silent protest from police and fire personnel, who said they were upset with the governor for holding the event near a playground they had built and dedicated to a teacher killed in the Connecticut school shootings in 2012. There was no such presence Wednesday, though a number of teachers were in the crowd clad in matching shirts and a group of protesters from Newark — upset that the governor hasn't had a town hall there — frequently interrupted Christie with chants demanding he come answer questions in the state's largest city.
Jim Huebner, a physics teacher at Howell High School, was there with a group from his district, but they weren't holding out hope of swaying the governor's mind.
"We're trying to get the message out — not to the governor because we don't think he listens — but to the legislators and the public. ... We made a sacrifice three years ago," he said, referring to a deal struck with Christie in 2011 where public employees kicked in more for their pension out of each paycheck.
Cory Glover, of Belmar, said he credits Christie with cleaning up corruption and pointing the state in the right direction. He did say that the pension fight was "not going to be easy" but that the governor has his support.
Christie opened the event with a plea to the Legislature to vote before Monday to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot this year that would empower judges to be able to deny bail to suspects in violent crimes.
Over the next hour, Christie took questions on a variety of topics, including:
• A special election in Belmar to determine whether the town should borrow $7 million to replace two pavilions destroyed in superstorm Sandy — Christie supports it;
• Teacher evaluations — Christie defended keeping them in place while simultaneously studying their fairness; and
• Edible medical marijuana for adults — Christie previously approved their use for sick kids and said Wednesday he would work with the Legislature on aspects of this issue but not on legalization.
A coalition of environmental advocates paid for a aerial banner saying "Don't Dump Frack Waste in NJ Waters" to fly in circles above the event. The groups are trying to persuade Christie to sign a bill sitting on his desk that was approved by lawmakers in June. The legislation would prohibit the dumping in New Jersey of waste water that is the byproduct of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas and oil.
Christie vetoed a similar measure in 2012 and, responding to a question from the crowd, indicated he still harbored questions about the constitutionality of the bill.