Police hold out for health care in new contract with township

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Several members of the West Orange Police Department spoke at the Feb. 19 West Orange Township Council meeting about the contract negotiations with the town. The WOPD has been working without a contract since the last one expired at the end of 2017, and is asking the township to reconsider its proposed contract that would eliminate health benefits in retirement for new hires.

Chris Jacksic, a WOPD officer and president of West Orange PBA Local 25, said that if new officers are not offered higher salaries and health benefits, they will leave for other departments.

“While the township is expanding in various stages of development, the population continues to increase and the department does not,” Jacksic said at the meeting. “We cannot do more with less.”

Jacksic said that 26 officers could potentially retire in the next two years and 20 could leave in 2020.

“This does not count the ones who will not retire here because they will be leaving for better pay and benefits elsewhere, like some are doing right now,” he said. “The long-term damage far outweighs any amount of increase that is eventually offered.”

He added that if the contract the township has offered is signed, West Orange would become the lowest paid department in Essex County. According to a 2017 NJ.com report, East Orange police officers are the lowest paid in the county, making $83,860 per year. The same report said Cedar Grove has the highest paid police department, with officers making an average of $120,048 per year.

“We cannot police 50,000 residents and answer 50,000 calls for service annually with only 70 or so officers,” Jacksic said, saying that the surrounding towns of South Orange, Verona and Livingston recently settled contract negotiations without eliminating health benefits. “Those numbers do not work. The future of the township and this agency are in your hands.”

Michael Cassidy, president of the West Orange Police Department Superior Officers Association, told council members it is expensive to recruit, train and hire new officers. If the department is forced to do so, more money will be spent in the long term, he said.

“We believe that if the township would sit down and have a serious talk about our health care plan we could save the taxpayers money now and in the future,” Cassidy said. “There’s a competitive job market in terms of experienced police officers. Why would anyone stay if they could go to any other police department, have retirement health care through the department or the state of New Jersey?”

A member of the Clifton Police Department spoke at the meeting in support of the WOPD, saying that if the township and police don’t agree on a fair contract soon, it will be detrimental to the officers and the township. Derek Fogg, vice president of Clifton PBA Local 36, is a former resident of West Orange.

“Prior to being hired in Clifton I was offered a possible position in this township,” Fogg said at the meeting. “After speaking with many police officers I was told to go to Clifton if I had the opportunity.”

Fogg said that after he was hired in Clifton, a series of contracts similar to the one offered to the WOPD were signed, with negative effects on the CPD.

“As of now, over 20 percent of new officers hired after 2013 have left for other departments,” Fogg said. “We are on a continuing hiring cycle, which has cost the city in training. Your township is headed in the same direction. The situation this division creates is not only bad for the police department, it’s bad for the township and for the citizens of West Orange.”

New Jersey State Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Colligan said at the meeting that the township is forcing the WOPD to sign the contract because they have no other choice. He said the situation is similar to the one in which the West Orange firefighters union found itself.

“This was not collective bargaining with the PBA,” Colligan said. “It is bargaining with a shotgun to their heads. They signed that contract in the FMBA because they had no opportunity, they had no choice. The exact same shotgun is being put to the PBA members’ heads. The morale in this agency can’t really get any lower, but it will when this contract is signed.”

Council President Jerry Guarino said at the meeting that he is hopeful about agreeing upon a fair contract.

“You have no bigger fan than myself,” Guarino said. “I believe that you give a great service to the community. Without your service and dedication and your support, we couldn’t be the good town that we are. Hopefully when we go through the contract we’ll make sure it’s fair for everyone.”