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Arbitrator rejects police supervisors contract raise

Citing Camden's dire financial situation and the "abject poverty" among its residents, an arbitrator has rejected a slew of contract proposals, including pay raises, by the union representing the city's police sergeants and lieutenants.

Citing Camden's dire financial situation and the "abject poverty" among its residents, an arbitrator has rejected a slew of contract proposals, including pay raises, by the union representing the city's police sergeants and lieutenants.

The Camden Organization of Police Superiors, which has worked without a contract or pay increase since 2009, sought a five-year contract with retroactive annual pay raises as high as 2.5 percent in 2010, although with no raise in 2014, the final year of the proposed contract.

Arbitrator Frank A. Mason also rejected the union's request for a 7.5 percent increase for officers working rotating shifts. In his ruling, handed down Wednesday, Mason also approved the city's request to cap vacation and holiday pay for retiring officers at $15,000.

An attorney for the union, the smaller of two police unions in the city, said he planned to appeal the decision, which he called an injustice to the officers.

The ruling, which continues the pay freeze, underscores a recent shift in which a city's ability to pay its officers is becoming the central issue in deciding contract disputes, according to an expert in police studies.

The decision, said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, alters the dynamic between labor and management.

"It curtails the conversation, because how much meaningful conversation can you have after the city says it can't pay? There is not much room for dialogue," he said.

Mason, appointed by the state Public Employment Relations Commission, said that while the union was "fully justified" to try to secure its members' future, the city's financial condition is the overarching concern.

"Money is the key resource, and it is very scarce," he wrote.

Mason noted that state funding to the city has been reduced by nearly 14 percent since 2010. More than 70 percent of Camden's budget is dependent on state aid. Property taxes, he noted, constitute only 17 percent of its income.

"I place a great deal of emphasis on the interests of the citizens. The city is virtually in abject poverty, and heavily dependent upon the federal government and state for financial support," he said.

But, he said, the union, despite that fiscal reality, "still presses for back pay to 2009 with annual increases."

"Of prominent clarity is the virtually absolute refusal of the union to recognize the depth of the fiscal crisis," he wrote.

The officers' contract expired in December 2008 and was extended for one year. Mason ruled that the contract should now expire in December 2013, a year longer than the city sought but a year less than the union did.

The union, which represents 30 sergeants and lieutenants, submitted the dispute to arbitration in October.

Gray, the union's attorney, said the requested increases were consistent with other arbitrators' recent decisions, which awarded supervising firefighters annual raises of $1,500 to $1,900, as well as giving raises to rank-and-file firefighters.

"The raises were necessary for the officers to avert a 20 percent pay decrease due to the cost of living, and increased health care and pension contributions," he said.

He added: "There is no reason for them to be treated differently from all the other city employees who are getting raises, especially in light of the fact that they are doing more with less."

Robert Corrales, spokesman for Mayor Dana L. Redd, in an e-mail called the decision "reasonable given the City of Camden's economic realities."

Dan Keashen, a Camden County spokesman, said the decision "puts a clear focus on the economic challenges of the city and its inability to pay for unrealistic demands."

More than 200 rank-and-file officers are represented by the Fraternal Order of Police, whose contract also is in arbitration, said union president John Williamson. On Friday, Williamson declined to comment on Mason's decision.

Officers' union president Kevin Wilkes did not respond to a call.

Mason rejected the union's request to return Wilkes, who was ordered to work the night shift, to full-time work as union president. He said the union was too small to "warrant the degree of daily attention sufficient to justify a full-time senior officer to their circumstances."

In rejecting the 7.5 percent increase for rotating shifts, Mason said "such assignments are ordinary in police work and in the particular economic environment found here would be excessive."

Camden County is proceeding with plans to replace the city department with the metro division of a new county-run force.

Residents of Camden are already beset by a crime surge amid significant cuts in the ranks of police, Mason said. This year, the city has had 67 homicides, the most ever.

More than 100 of the 168 officers laid off after a $26 million budget shortfall have been rehired. But the roughly 260-member force is about 100 officers fewer than its pre-layoff strength.

"These burdens have caused the city to deteriorate rapidly. It has become a desperate situation for police as well as residents," Mason wrote.

"For these reasons, I feel compelled to take the side of the city. The city simply has no capacity to comply," he said.

O'Donnell, a former New York police officer, said: "The whole labor-relations process as we know it is changing in this country. . . . More and more, this signals that the police and their pay and benefits will be depicted as unsustainable."