By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
For nearly four years, Rumson officials and its police union have been at loggerheads on a new contract. Earlier this week, a state arbitrator delivered a decision that has the council shocked and disappointed.
The governing body will appeal the decision given by arbitrator James Mastriani, said Mayor John Ekdahl. The terms Mastriani proposed, he said, create a “privileged class” of employees.
The award calls for 3.5-, 3.5- and 3.25-percent pay increases retroactive to when the union’s contract expired at the end of 2006. For 2010, officers would get increases of 3 percent, and 2.75-percent next year if Mastriani’s award holds up.
But given the state’s economic turmoil plus a pending 2-percent tax cap Ekdahl finds the terms of the police contract unfair to the borough and its taxpayers.
“It completely flies in the face of the (Governor Chris) Christie-mandated budget caps of 2-percent,” he said. “The arbitrator has termed a privileged class of people. That’s just not right. You can’t have a group of employees getting a raise that’s more than the cap.”
Ekdahl said the borough has money set aside to cover the first three years’ worth of increases, but not enough in 2010 to cover the 3-percent raises. Police salaries presently cost borough taxpayers about $1.25 million annually.
If the Public Employment Relations Commission, which will handle Rumson’s appeal, upholds Mastriani’s award, Ekdahl said the 2.75-percent pay raises will leave the council scrambling to cover the cost.
“To try and balance next year’s budget, we’ll have to take money out of somebody else’s pocket,” he said, “and that’s just not fair.”
One possibility brought up at Monday night’s council meeting, when Ekdahl shared the terms of the arbitrator’s decision, was cutting down on the borough’s 16-member force so as not to take money from elsewhere in the budget.
“That would be a possible outcome if we adhere to these terms,” Councilman Mark Rubin said.
One bright spot, from the council’s perspective, concerns contributions to healthcare insurance, which led to the multiyear impasse between the council and police union. The council wanted union employees to contribute, and the department did not, he said. Under the arbitrator’s terms, employees would contribute 10 percent of the costs of insurance.
Mastriani’s decision comes seven months after he stepped into the contractual deadlock between the two parties. Ekdahl said PERC shouldn’t take that long to render a decision on the appeal, but it may take a couple of months.
And Ekdahl is hopeful that Rumson will win the appeal. In its last offer in the contract, he said the borough offered free uniform cleaning service for the life of the contract. It was rejected.
“I think anybody who turns down free unlimited dry cleaning, you have to wonder if they’re fit for the job,” he said.
Patrolman Chris Isherwood, the PBA unit’s rep, did not respond to a request for comment.