Mayors across New Jersey are putting together 2011 budgets in the worst of times: The economy has not recovered. An anxious public expects relief from the new 2 percent levy cap. Yet the gap between expectations and what we mayors can deliver right now is huge.
So it’s time to sound the alarm. Unless the Legislature acts now on this critical item in Gov. Chris Christie’s “tool kit,” we will see layoffs and service cuts that will dwarf those our residents have felt.
We need a strong bill to rein in the cost of police and fire contracts. Binding arbitration reform cannot wait, for each passing day brings an opportunity for an award that our budgets cannot absorb. Reform must include a cap on awards, because it’s not fair to expect mayors to live within a cap if the items that drive up our costs can go above it.
I took a similar stance back in 2008, when the water company that serves my town tried to increase the rates on fire hydrants above cap. Robbinsville pushed back and won. Today, the Legislature is dealing with the single biggest item in most municipal budgets: salaries for police and firefighters. If the financial package these employees receive isn’t brought under control, and in a meaningful way, the property tax beast will be left untamed.
If you need proof that mayors need a cap, look at the 15 percent award given to Belmar police officers in mid-September. The arbitrator – who lives in Pennsylvania – mentioned the new cap law in granting 3 percent annual raises, which he felt were offset by contributions to health care. But as Belmar Mayor Kenneth Pringle explained at the time, the arbitrator didn’t acknowledge how these annual raises meshed with contract steps and longevity pay, standard escalators that would clearly send Belmar’s costs above the new 2 percent threshold.
Belmar’s mayor mentioned layoffs. And he’s not alone.
Gov. Christie’s stance isn’t as harsh as the N.J. State League of Municipalities, which questions whether it’s time to go back to a “last best offer” for police and firefighters who won’t settle. An excellent League white paper notes that without reform, towns will be unable to hire new officers, and all other municipal services will be starved. Public safety will suffer.
Yes, police deliver an essential service. But when The Star-Ledger finds that the median pay of an officer is $90,672, and that the best-paid officers work in the safest towns, something has to give.
The clock is ticking on arbitration reform. New Jersey’s property taxpayers can’t afford to wait.