GOVERNMENT THAT WORKS
APP.com: How the Police Bank Millions Through Their Union Contracts
By Andrew Ford, Asbury Park Press, and Agnes Chang, Jeff Kao and Agnel Philip, ProPublica
One town’s police contract guaranteed a retiring lieutenant $121,000 for unused sick time. Another’s promises officers six months pay with no work required as a parting retirement benefit. In another contract, cops get paid $109 an hour for side gigs like monitoring traffic at construction sites.
Despite attempts to rein in police union contracts in New Jersey, costly provisions remain common, an unprecedented analysis by the Asbury Park Press and ProPublica found. The news outlets identified contract clauses throughout the state that protect officer payouts that cost the public hundreds of millions of dollars.
In 2010, state lawmakers passed a law to stop huge retirement payouts for unused sick days, but taxpayers are still funding the largesse. North Bergen approved generous payments to four retiring officers in 2019, including a sergeant who got $75,330.32 for unused sick time. Some retirement payouts can be even higher. In 2017, a chief in Jersey City collected more than half a million dollars.
The debt for unused sick time and vacation time, which is largely dictated by the contracts, totaled at least $492.9 million for municipal police alone in 2019, according to a review of town budget records. The liability is primarily due to officers who were hired before the 2010 law passed.
The Press and ProPublica also found that unions and towns have a loophole that gets around the limit the state Legislature put on the payouts. Unlike in the private sector, where many companies require employees to use or lose their sick and vacation time each year, some union deals allow officers to sell back their unused sick time annually, which could allow new hires to exceed the $15,000 limit the state put on such payouts at retirement. Four officers in Norwood appear to have already exceeded the state limit with annual payouts. Norwood Borough Attorney Kevin Corriston said he believed the town was in compliance, but that he was unfamiliar with the law and would investigate further.
New Jersey State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, did not like hearing that the state law can be subverted.
“We obviously changed the law because we felt what was going on was wrong,” O’Scanlon said. “It’s a disservice to property taxpayers. Pure and simple.”
Reporters downloaded thousands of police union contracts from a state website and used a machine-learning computer analysis to identify provisions related to financial perks and discipline. Then the reporters read and counted provisions in 245 contracts that were in effect as of Jan. 1, 2019.
The contracts were laden with various financial perks. In nearly two dozen towns, they guarantee retiring cops months of pay, dubbed “terminal leave,” while doing no work. In Asbury Park, retirees get a golden badge. Some towns give a “perfect attendance” bonus if officers do not use sick time. In one town it’s a $600 gift card. In another the “attendance incentive” can tally up to $2,500 a year.
High-paying “extra duty” jobs — like sitting in a patrol car monitoring traffic at a road construction site — are also protected by the contracts. One department launched an internal investigation after the Press and ProPublica identified an officer logging nearly 28 straight work hours between his day job and his moonlighting.
New Jersey officers already enjoy the third-highest base salaries in the nation, as well as generous pensions and health care benefits. The costly compensation contributes to the state’s top rank for property taxes.
Read the full report here.