The New York Times
March 22, 2009
JERSEY | EAST BRUNSWICK
He Who Dares to Mention Police Pay
By KEVIN COYNE
ANOTHER budget season has arrived in the tense municipal chambers of New Jersey, the first since the economy began its slide toward who knows where, and with it a fresh set of worries about what to do when the bills come due.
Layoffs loom. Revenue gaps widen. The word “furlough” has entered daily conversation. So unsettling have the numbers proved, in fact, that some elected officials have begun to ask aloud a question that previously was uttered only in private: How much more can we afford to pay our police?
“The public is unaware of how expensive this is,” said L. Mason Neely, the chief financial officer in this sprawling Middlesex County township for the last 34 years. “It may be time to rethink the whole structure of how we deal with public safety and what we pay, and how soon we retire people.”
When you say things like that in public — as Mr. Neely has for decades now, longer than almost anybody in the state — you get two reactions: outrage from the police and firefighters, whose dangerous jobs are a bulwark against chaos; and whispered assertions of support from local officials who have watched public safety costs consume ever-larger portions of their budgets, but who have to face, as Mr. Neely does not, the voters and the powerful unions that shape elections.
“I can’t tell you how many people privately say, ‘I agree, it’s a big problem,’ but they’re intimidated,” Mr. Neely said.
So it was a sign of just how dire times are when a prominent Democratic county executive, Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. of Essex County, stood beside the Republican mayor of the small Bergen County borough of Closter, Sophie Heymann, at a press conference a few weeks ago and called for reforms to the binding arbitration system that governs police and fire contracts.
“Everybody is discussing it — this is like the No. 1 issue now in the state,” Mr. DiVincenzo said last week. “Everybody supports it, everybody knows it’s the right thing to do, but who would stand up and be counted?”
When police officers and firefighters hit a wall in contract talks, they have a right unique among the state’s public employees: to seek a settlement from a state-appointed arbitrator. They are not permitted to strike, so binding arbitration was established several decades ago as a way to give them more leverage in negotiations.
But a series of recent arbitration awards in police contracts — with 4 percent annual wage hikes at a time when many workers are instead facing pay cuts or the unemployment line — seemed to buttress the longtime complaint of many local officials: that the system is weighted toward the public safety unions, and has driven compensation costs to levels that are hard to sustain, especially in tight times.
“I don’t know how we’re going to do it — we’ve already cut everything else but police in the last two years,” said Ms. Heymann, 80, who has been mayor for two years, and who was working on her town’s budget this week. Revenues are down $500,000 from last year, but among the higher costs she faces is $65,000 more in police salaries, mandated by a recent arbitration agreement. “Unfortunately, I can fight all I want, but it’s not going to help my poor borough, because we’re going to be stuck now for the next three years paying that 4 percent increase every year.”
Mr. DiVincenzo’s attention was concentrated on the issue by his own looming date with an arbitrator, for the law enforcement personnel who account for a third of the county’s 3,400 employees. He has offered a three-year contract with a 3 percent wage increase in the first year, and nothing in the last two. “This county will be bankrupt,” he said, if an arbitrator awards a contract with 4 percent increases like Closter’s.
“I have nothing but respect for them and the job they do, but I have a job to do, too,” he said. “Maybe it’s suicidal, but the taxpayers can no longer afford it.”
The union that represents about three-quarters of the state’s law enforcement officers disagrees. “Overall, I don’t see the mass number of awards or people getting these awards that shows it’s a problem,” said James Ryan, spokesman for the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association. “One of the things I worry about with these economic conditions is that, the way we’re set up in New Jersey, with so many small towns, the biggest expense in any municipal budget is typically going to be your police department, so it’s very easy to pick on.”
A survey by the state P.B.A. of its 33,000 members during the first two weeks of March found that 20 percent of the police agencies in New Jersey are considering layoffs that would eliminate up to 325 jobs. Over the last three years, the survey found, 297 law enforcement jobs were lost in the state.
But in Mr. Neely’s office here, a few steps down the hall from the Police Department, he just keeps adding up the numbers, and they just keep growing more alarming. The average salary for a patrolman in New Jersey with 7 to 10 years’ experience, according to the state P.B.A., is $83,000, before overtime. Salaries tend to be highest in the suburbs nearest New York: Eighteen of the 22 officers in the Closter Police Department make more than $100,000.
What worries him most, though — and what he has spoken out about most loudly, earning the enmity of public safety unions — is what happens after officers retire. There are about 46,000 public safety officers currently on the job, and they can typically retire with 65 percent pay and fully paid health benefits after 25 years, regardless of age. New Jersey had 31,726 retired officers and firefighters in 2007, the most recent year for which numbers are available, according to the State Division of Pension and Benefits.
“He could easily be retired for 40 years, so you’re paying him 40 years of pension for having worked 25 years,” Mr. Neely said. “That’s very expensive, and that’s the culture change I’m talking about that we need to rethink.”
In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Gov. David A. Paterson have proposed establishing a minimum retirement age of 50 for the police and firefighters, and requiring them to work 25 years, rather than 20, before full retirement benefits kick in. But no one on this side of the river has floated anything similar, and Mr. Neely isn’t holding his breath.
“It hasn’t surfaced yet,” he said, and it won’t “until the Legislature feels enough pressure, either through not being re-elected or someone makes it an issue.”
In the last few weeks, governing bodies in about 10 towns in Bergen County, Democratic and Republican alike, have passed resolutions supporting reforms for binding arbitration, and Mr. DiVincenzo has been trying to collect enough support to persuade somebody in Trenton to sponsor a bill.
“I told him I would gladly stand with him hand in hand on the steps of the State House to call for some relief,” said Timothy C. McDonough, the mayor of Hope Township in Warren County, and the president of the League of Municipalities. “The support is absolutely there, but I think a lot of mayors and county officials are just so frustrated that they think it’s a fight that’s never going to be won.”
Mr. Neely was working on his budget last week, too, wondering what he would have to cut to make it balance, glad that some other voices had joined his chorus, but also skeptical that anything will change before he himself retires. He is 69, and has long been eligible, but is not yet willing. “I’m not fully depreciated yet,” he said, using the language of his trade for his value as an employee, and then he punched some more numbers into his adding machine.