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With law's fate uncertain, towns rush to retain access to cap on police raises

A number of South Jersey counties and towns have rushed to make sure they can still avail themselves of a 2 percent cap on arbitrator-awarded raises to police and firefighters even with the Legislature at a stalemate over renewing the law that created the cap.

A number of South Jersey counties and towns have rushed to make sure they can still avail themselves of a 2 percent cap on arbitrator-awarded raises to police and firefighters even with the Legislature at a stalemate over renewing the law that created the cap.

Gov. Christie is prodding Assembly Democrats to extend the law. The Senate has already approved an extension.

Just before the cap law expired April 1, dozens of towns and counties statewide filed for arbitration. Those decisions were likely precautionary; the contracts at issue all expired last year or earlier, and therefore were still subject to the limits on salary increases.

But the flurry of activity - 74 "interest arbitration" petitions were filed between March 27 and April 1, compared with 28 in all of 2013, according to the state Public Employment Relations Commission - underscored the urgency of the matter for local governments.

Among the petitioners were Camden County, the City of Camden, Pennsauken, Gloucester County, Paulsboro, and Evesham.

"It sets a standard that we should all try to meet, and within reason," Camden County administrator Ross Angilella said. The county allocates $65 million to law enforcement salaries, 19 percent of the county budget of $342 million.

"Employees have a right to be compensated fairly, as well. No one's saying that they don't have that right. But what was happening before all of this was unsustainable, in my opinion," Angilella said.

Christie and other supporters of the cap say it has helped slow property-tax growth because public safety workers' salaries take up a significant part of local budgets.

Since the cap took effect in January 2011, arbitrators have awarded average annual raises of 1.9 percent, according to a March task force report commissioned by the governor and Legislature. Supporters of the law say those raises sometimes reached double digits before it was implemented.

Last year, the average state property-tax levy increased 1.7 percent, according to the Department of Community Affairs. Christie has said property taxes grew on average 7 percent annually in the 10 years before he took office in 2010.

Union officials and some Democrats object that the cap has tilted negotiations too heavily in favor of local-government employers and argue there is no causal relationship between the cap and lower property taxes.

Christie wants to "return to the day where cops worked at the will of politicians who want their friends and allies to benefit and where they can punish those who don't want to toe the line," Anthony F. Wieners, president of the state Policemen's Benevolent Association, said last week.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature joined Christie, a Republican, in 2010 to implement the cap as part of the governor's property-tax "tool kit," along with a law that imposed a 2 percent annual cap on property-tax increases.

But the interest-arbitration law was written to expire on April 1, and the cap on property-tax increases was made permanent. So even as bigger salary increases could drive up costs, local governing bodies still face a limit on a key source of revenue.

In March, the state Senate passed a bill that would have allowed arbitrators to grant a maximum of 3 percent raises in certain cases, such as if towns had realized savings through increased employee contributions to health benefits and reductions in the force.

The bill also would have exempted contracts that were previously negotiated under the 2 percent arbitration cap. Christie conditionally vetoed that bill, saying those provisions would have weakened the cap. He sent it back with revisions, which the Senate quickly accepted. The legislation would extend the cap through 2017.

The Assembly - which passed the initial Senate version - has not acted on the new measure, and Christie has spent much of the month excoriating it for not doing so. The Assembly's next voting session is scheduled for May 22.

Speaker Vincent Prieto said he was in conversations with Christie. The Assembly, Prieto said in a statement, "looks forward to settling this issue through good-faith negotiations that protect taxpayers and provide fairness to the police and firefighters who protect our safety."

At a town-hall meeting in Franklin, Somerset County, on Tuesday, Christie said Assembly Democrats "don't want to do it. They want to give away more of your money. The people who donate so generously to their campaigns . . . are telling them they don't want it."

Local officials say they support extending the cap.

Randy Brown, the Republican mayor of Evesham Township, said the caps on municipal budget increases and police and fire arbitration awards were "absolutely what has allowed me to have no tax increase in two of the last three years, and a decrease in next year's budget."

The township of 46,000 is negotiating a police contract, he said, but it began negotiations before the April 1 expiration, so the cap still applies. Representatives of the union could not be reached.

Before the salary cap, the township sometimes had arbitration awards of 4 percent to 5 percent imposed, said Brown, who has been mayor since 2007 and who also sits on the executive board of the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

Gloucester County's all-Democratic freeholder board is negotiating a contract with PBA Local 122, which represents sheriff's officers.

County Administrator Chad Bruner credits the cap with creating a standard for all negotiations, such as those with emergency responders. He said the cap and its "compounding effect" had slowed the growth of property taxes.

Timothy O'Donnell, president of the PBA local, which also represents Paulsboro police, said: "We understand the theory behind it, but we don't necessarily agree with it.

"We understand the economy was tough for a while and sacrifices need to be felt across the board," he added. But O'Donnell said the union "definitely" supported the idea of increasing the cap to 3 percent.