A trip to old Brazil


When I consider the current state of affairs in New Jersey, I am reminded of the final scene in one of my favorite movies, director Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.”

After Sam Lowry, a bureaucrat who has found himself in a heap of trouble with his civil service bosses, is tortured to the point that his mind no long exists in this world, his former boss, Mr. Helpmann, turns to the torturer and says, “He’s got away from us, Jack.”

The torturer, Jack Lint, replies, “I’m afraid you’re right, Mr. Helpmann. He’s gone.”

New Jersey, I’m afraid, has gotten away from us. I don’t know quite when it happened, but it did, and just like Sam Lowry, it may be too far gone to bring it back. I’m not picking on individuals here. I’m just stating some facts.

When did it start to make sense to pay 22-year-olds more than $45,000 a year to begin a teaching career? In some school districts the starting salary for a new teacher is approaching $50,000 with no end in sight as to how high that starting salary will go.

Has anyone considered the possibility that that salary may be just a little too high for a person with no work experience?

I know, in order to attract the best teachers, you have to pay them what they are worth. Excuse me, but what about a school district setting a starting salary and saying, “This is the starting salary for this position, you have no experience, you are welcome to take it or leave it.”

That starting salary should be the same every year.

And when did school superintendents become entitled to retirement payouts that reach into the high six figures? The practice has been allowed to occur over a number of years by school boards. Of course, as superintendents’ salaries increased and the retirement packages were based on an individual’s salary, the payouts got bigger, too.

It is only now, when retirement payouts to some superintendents have reached what are truly ridiculous levels and the little guys are boiling over with anger, that state officials are trying to get a handle on the situation and put some restraints in place.

Read some of the municipal budget stories that have been published in this newspaper over the past few weeks. Our reporters have focused on one line item that is found in every community – pension payments for police officers, firefighters and other public employees.

These payments to fund the pension system have been rising by huge amounts for the past several years and they will continue to rise in the years to come. In some towns the payments are in the millions.

Municipal budgets will continue to feel the strain of the staggering pension payments.

Everyone wants more police officers hired as towns add population, right? Who wants to get up at a public meeting and argue for less police protection? But the more police officers that are hired, the more that will eventually retire. The more police officers that retire, the higher the total pension payments, and some of those pensions are very lucrative.

Local officials claim they cannot understand why this is so, but they (or their predecessors in local government) are the ones who negotiated the salary deals with the people who are now owed the money. They had to know what the end result was going to be. Their “surprise” at the bill that is now coming due is hard to stomach.

So New Jersey residents, like Sam Lowry in Terry Gilliam’s (fictional?) “Brazil,” find themselves in a state and a society they can no longer control. I’m afraid it’s gotten away from us.

There are no explanations, there are only answers that tell us “this is how it is. Deal with it.” Given those circumstances, it is possible that many Garden Staters, like Sam Lowry, will end up losing their mind, too, and floating away to an imaginary “Brazil.”

Mark Rosman is a managing editor with Greater Media Newspapers.