After years-long battle, Tenafly signs police contract with no raises for three years

TENAFLY — The borough government has signed a contract with its police union giving no raises for three years and including a scaled-back pay step system requiring officers to work longer to reach maximum pay.

The signing ended years of talks and legal battling that reached the state’s highest courts. The struggle has been closely watched in other municipalities and may serve as a lesson for other police departments considering sustained challenges to stingy agreements.

Tenafly’s battle came to an end after the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case of the Police Union, PBA 376, allowing a lower-court decision to stand. An appeal to the Superior Court in January 2015 had confirmed a state arbitrator’s award to Tenafly.

Tenafly officials adopted the new three-year police contract — which expires at the end of December — on Sept. 17. The contract goes into effect retroactively, beginning Jan. 1 2013.

“This is being talked about in other towns,” said Borough Attorney William McClure. “Tenafly held its ground and took a firm stance on pay increases. They essentially took a tougher stance than they had in prior years and stuck to it.”

Despite hefty legal fees, “from a cost-benefit analysis, it was a tremendous victory,” he said. Tenafly’s stance in this case will serve as “an example to other towns that you can take a tough position to save taxpayers money.”

Borough officials were unable to provide estimates of how much the new contract will save the borough. They asserted that the cutback was a consequence of a state arbitrator’s application, to the contract, of a mandated 2-percent cap on increases in tax-supported spending.

Tenafly police, who have been working without a contract since January 2013, had argued that the proposed contract would limit promotions, raises and vacations for officers. Salaries in the 33-member Police Department range from $66,041 for an officer after one year to $138,976 for a lieutenant.

A major issue was that benefits that were long part of the contract, including vacation and personal days, longevity and medical benefits, would be decreased. Officers faced a longer wait for promotion under the new contract; given that, police representatives said they felt they had no choice but to go to arbitration to fight the the borough’s offerings.

The PBA claimed in its arbitration argument that there had been an increase of 26 percent in calls in 2012 over 2011. At the same time, the borough reduced the force from 39 officers to 31, forcing its members to work longer and harder. For example, Tenafly officers work annually 260 days, compared with 248 days in Fort Lee, said police.

“Basically, under the new contract, a police officer will make less in 2015 than in 2012, even the higher-ups,” said Hector Olmo, the union representative. The contract will require officers to pay 35 percent of the medical plan, while keeping salaries frozen, he added.

Police Chief Robert Chamberlain said the failed negotiations and arbitrator’s ruling created morale problems in his department as he was settling into his new position as chief.

“The guys were upset,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure our officers are free of distractions and are focused on the task of policing and protective services.” If the borough continues to add pay steps and reduce benefits, it will result in lesser-qualified candidates, he warned — “I don’t know of any town with a contract similar to ours. I believe a lot of towns have tried to avoid arbitrations since then.”

Capt. John Trainor added that although everyone is doing their job, officers are disappointed. “They felt a lot of things were done unnecessarily,” he said. Noting the general chilling effect of the outcome, he said “The general feeling out there is that `We don’t want to happen to us what happened to the Tenafly cops.’ ”

The police wanted a wage increase, said Mark Ruderman, the attorney representing Tenafly in the case. “They were also concerned about the implementation of the number of tiered benefits for new hires,” but that was consistent with what the borough had negotiated with other municipal unions, he said. As for police complaints about the borough’s proposal that extra pay steps be added to stretch out raises, Ruderman explained that “the problem is that we had so many guys on steps that the cost of the increments equals to more than 2 percent a year … The increments themselves were worth more than 6 percent over three years, even without a raise.” As a result, the increments had to be adjusted so the award would comply with interest arbitration statute, he said.

Ruderman asserted that the borough wanted to have the matter “amicably resolved from the beginning.”

But Olmo said that negotiations on the contract, which began in the fall of 2012, quickly dissolved as Tenafly refused to budge.

In February 2013, the PBA initiated arbitration with the state Public Employment Relations Commission. The arbitrator ruled in favor of Tenafly in May 2013, and the PBA appealed the award to the commission, which affirmed the arbitrator’s award in June 2013. The PBA then appealed to the courts.

With the ink barely dry on the contract, the two sides already must return to the negotiating table over the next three-year police contract.

Mayor Peter Rustin hopes the next round of negotiations will be less tedious and more peaceful. Yet, he said, “It’s unfortunate that the economic times have changed and municipalities can’t afford to do business the way we have in the past.”

Olmo, too, wants to avoid a fight. “We have made approaches to them to see if they are willing to talk to us and see if we can come up with some amicable agreement without attorneys,” he said. “Hopefully it will be a better agreement.”