Police, fire arbitration cap to expire – but for how long?
Good news for those advocating the extension of a 2 percent cap on the raises arbitrators can award police officers and firefighters: Senate President Stephen Sweeney says it could happen by mid-January, depending on what it says in a task force’s final report.
But the bad news is this: One of the task force members says that report isn’t coming.
“There will not be another report,” said Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth. “And there isn’t anything else to put in the report that’s relevant. And again: It’s the same report, same metrics, and the same conclusions that were bolstered before, except by a whole boatload of more information.”
The cap expires Dec. 31. Its supporters say it is crucial to helping towns and counties navigate the 2 percent on increases in the property tax levy. Its union detractors want it to be allowed to sunset, contending it creates an unfair imbalance in collective bargaining.
At the end of September, the half of the task force aligned with Gov. Chris Christie’s administration voted to approve a report endorsing the permanent extension of the arbitration cap. Although the panel’s union members didn’t vote to approve it, O’Scanlon made it public – some two to three months sooner than the report was generally expected.
Sweeney said Democrats were told they’d get an updated report this month.
“When we get the report, we’ll read the report. But it can’t be a one-sided report, in fairness to everybody,” Sweeney said.
“I am absolutely expecting it,” he said. “And it would be disappointing if we didn’t get one.”
Union officials appointed to the panel by legislative leaders objected to the September report, saying it should include information about other changes aimed at limiting increases in property taxes, such as making public workers pay more for their health benefits.
O’Scanlon said he’d review any such additional information the union side of the task force provides but that there’s been “nothing, crickets” so far.
“So anybody that tells you, ‘Oh, we’re waiting for this other report,’ ain’t happening. And they know, just about anybody who’s going to comment to you like that, they know damn well that that’s not true,” O’Scanlon said.
“Well,” Sweeney said, when asked what happens next if there’s not a follow-up report, “then we’re going to have to sit down and have a more in-depth conversation pretty quickly.”
A bipartisan gathering of county and local officials, joined by business groups, says that conversation can’t start quickly enough. They say the pending expiration of the arbitration cap already is influencing contract talks, as is the uncertainty over whether it will later be restored.
They want Gov.-elect Phil Murphy to signal to Democratic lawmakers that they should renew the cap. Murphy has said since the gubernatorial campaign he would reserve judgment until the final task force report.
“If the Legislature and the governors care about rising property taxes, then this is a no-brainer,” said East Rutherford Mayor James Cassella, a Republican, the president of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
Cassella said police salaries account for 23 percent of his borough’s municipal budget and that spending cuts, including fewer new police officers, would follow if police raises start exceeding the 2 percent cap on property tax levy increases.
Gloucester County Freeholder Heather Simmons said there were no surprises when the New Jersey Association of Counties surveyed officials about what would result if the arbitration cap is lifted.
“In addition to having to raise taxes, they responded they would have no choice but to impose employee furloughs,” Simmons said. “They would have to privatize services, freeze salaries for nonaffiliated employees and reduce or eliminate non-mandated services such as transportation for the aging and disabled, Meals on Wheels, mental health and addiction services.”
In 2018, the loss of the arbitration cap would lead to budgets being reworked and service reductions, said Mike Cerra, assistant executive director of the League of Municipalities. In 2019, towns would probably start asking voters to approve ballot questions to exceed the 2 percent cap.
“This is the first big test of the governor-elect, and so far he’s earning a great big F as a grade,” said O’Scanlon, who in three weeks will move from the Assembly to the Senate. “He needs to speak out about this. Silence on this issue is just irresponsible.”