West Orange police will turn an ongoing dispute over a four-year job contract to an arbitrator after nearly 18 months of failed negotiations, according to union officials.
"It is not being done fair and equitably across the board," said West Orange Police Officer and Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Christopher Jacksic.
The patrolmen's benevolent association, Local 25, moved towards arbitration once they overwhelmingly rejected a second four-year contract June 8 with a 63-0 vote. The contract, proposed by the township, required that officers pay 25 percent of their medical benefits, included wage increases in 2012 and 2013 and rehired the eight officers that were laid off in March.
Union officials maintain the contract is not reasonable for its employees.
Union members also turned down the township's first proposal March 14 that required a 7.5 percent concession to salary for benefits and 2 percent salary increases for 2012 and 2013.
The vote resulted in eight layoffs and 16 demotion to offset the township's roughly $3.4 million deficit.
West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi called the second vote "unfortunate" and the "final attempt" at negotiations.
"We have to find a balance between the employees' needs and the township's needs and it's not only just a financial balance, it's a moral balance," said Parisi. "We all feel a moral obligation that all of our employees and their families are properly covered and properly cared for but that has to be balanced with the economic reality of the township."
These negotiations come against the backdrop of a state-wide health benefits reform plan that is pending in the state legislature. Introduced by Senate president Steve Sweeney, the reform plan (S-2718) would require public employees to pay a percentage of their health care premium on a sliding scale based on salary. Payments would be made gradually over the course of four or seven years.
While the reform plan would require public employees to pay up to 30 percent of their benefits, payments would be phased out and gradually build up with salary increases. The contract proposed by the township, however, is not "salary specific," said Jacksic. "A new officer with a family pays equal as an officer that's been here for 20 years."
He said that due to current pending legislation, "the membership felt that they would await the findings of the state and follow what process the state was going through."
The union has filed for arbitration, scheduled to take place July 15. Because of the nature of their jobs, police and fire employees are prohibited from striking and need to hire an arbitrator by law to settle the matter.
"This is the business of government," said Parisi. "It's not like we don't have tremendous respect for what they do ... we have to do what's in the best interest of the town to keep the town economically viable."
Since the layoffs, two officers have been rehired due to unexpected retirements and one more will be rehired in July. Three officers have been offered employment in Milburn. Two officers remain unemployed, according to township officials.