The Verona Town Council unanimously approved a new three-year contract with police officers that should bring substantial relief to our municipal budget and could become a model for agreements in other towns.
The contract, which runs through December 2016, drops the starting officer salary and slows the pace of salary increases over the officer’s career. It encourages officers to be paid for overtime early in their careers, rather than take the so-called comp time payment at the end, which it takes a bigger hit of the town’s budget. And with perhaps six retirements expected from the force in the next four to five years, the new contract sets Verona up to save $150,000 on each of its new hires over their careers. The changes are important because although the police force has shrunk in the last decade, it remains the largest cost in Verona’s budget. The new contract probably won’t cut the budget, but it should slow its rate of increase.
Here’s what’s happening in the new contract, which was presented to the Council in front of a Council chamber packed with officers and town employees. The starting salary for a new officer is being lowered by almost 40%, to $38,300 from roughly $62,000. The number of salary steps–the points at which the officer’s pay is increased–will expand to 10 from six, which means that it will take new hires four years to get to their predecessors’ starting pay. It will take them 10 years to get to a $108,000 salary, something that would have taken only six years under the old contract.
“Increasing the steps, that really is different,” says Jeffrey Keefe, a professor at Rutger’s University’s School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, noting that only the New Jersey state police now have a 10-level step guide. “The other thing that is different is starting them off at what they were earning at the [Police] Academy. This gives the town the time to see if this officer is what they really want.”
By law, police officers get something called compensatory, or “comp”, time instead of overtime. In the past, they saved that until the end of their careers, when the hours were paid to them at a much higher rate than they would have gotten as young officers. The new contract lets Verona buy back up to 200 hours of comp time when an officer is promoted to sergeant, and the payout to the officer can be put in a deferred compensation account similar to those used for bonus payouts in the private sector. “We link a current cost to a current payment instead of kicking the can down the road,” said Town Manager Joe Martin on Monday night.
The police weren’t the only ones to get a new contract. The Council also unanimously approved a three-year agreement with the O.P.E.I.U. Local 153, which covers municipal employees. It adds four levels to their step guide and drops the starting salary in the guide to $33,000 from $41,000. Martin expects six retirements from this group of employees as well in the next four to five years, so taxpayers should see a savings as replacements are brought in at a lower rate.
“The contracts recognize taxpayer concerns,” said Martin. “I am pleased and proud of the outcome.”