Gloucester County corrections officers are considering an offer from the state to drop their lawsuit against the county in exchange for early-retirement incentives. The move could bring the county nearer to closing its jail.
The officers are seeking to invalidate the county's plan to ship its 270 adult male inmates to jails in four other counties, which would result in substantial layoffs at the Woodbury jail. The officers say the plan doesn't preserve their seniority, pension, and tenure rights, as required by New Jersey's Uniform Shared Services and Consolidation Act.
The counties working with Gloucester were worried that the act would require them to replace their own employees with the laid-off Gloucester officers if they had more seniority.
Gloucester began working with Cumberland and Salem Counties, and eventually added Burlington and Essex.
Of Gloucester's 120 corrections officers, at least 53 are set to be laid off once all the inmates are dispersed by July 1, said Chad Bruner, the county administrator. The remaining officers will be used for transportation crews and other details.
The corrections officers sued the county March 14 in an effort to prevent the closing of Gloucester County Jail. That suit continues.
In the meantime, the officers are exploring ways to minimize layoffs by asking for expedited retirement, according to Bruner.
As a result, said Bruner, the state is offering officers with at least 20 years' experience retirement incentives, which would affect about 20 officers. Typically an officer has to work 25 years before being eligible for retirement.
A similar offer was made to Camden police before the state instituted a countywide force. Camden police declined the offer.
"Clearly it's something that the FOP members should consider. At the end of the day, it saves more jobs," Bruner said Thursday. Bruner said the unions - FOP Lodges 97, 199, and 165 - initiated the talks, asking the county to contact the state about such a proposal.
Edward R. Brannigan, president of the state Fraternal Order of Police, declined to comment on the offer, citing ongoing negotiations.
Any such plan would have to be approved by the state Department of Community Affairs. A department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
"At this point, there's been nothing concrete," said Mark Cimino, an attorney who represents the officers. "Of course, if something concrete comes in, we'll have to give it due consideration."
The Gloucester County Board of Freeholders passed a resolution March 13 entering into shared-services agreements with Salem and Cumberland Counties to outsource its adult male inmates, citing millions in cost savings. A day later, the officers filed suit.
The freeholder board then rescinded the resolution and adopted a new one April 24 that changed the language of "shared-services" to a "direct contract," and expanded the plan to Essex and Burlington Counties.
The officers promptly filed another suit May 2 in Burlington County Superior Court, which is set to hear arguments next Thursday. In it, they argue that the new direct contract plan is a distinction without a difference.
Even if the officers accept the state's offer, Gloucester County faces yet another lawsuit, filed May 13 by state Public Defender Joseph Krakora, his office, and three inmates at the jail.
That suit seeks temporary and permanent injunctions and alleges that sending inmates to far-flung locales such as Newark would impede public defenders' ability to provide adequate counsel. Arguments for that suit are also scheduled for next Thursday in Burlington County Superior Court.