Posted Thursday, July 31st, 2014

The Morris County Board of Freeholders is joining several other counties in asking the New Jersey Supreme Court to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that held a Sheriff is the sole employer of the employees in the Sheriff’s Office for the purpose of negotiating contracts.

The Morris freeholders are also appealing a second interest arbitration award granted to PBA Local 298, which represents officers at the Morris County Correctional Facility. While every union in the county in 2011 voluntarily agreed to a complete wage freeze, the corrections officers fought the freeze and were granted raises by an arbitrator.

“The freeholders weighed the potential impact these two rulings could have on our finances and on county taxpayers, and decided that appeals are warranted in each case,” said Morris County Freeholder Director Tom Mastrangelo.

The lawsuits were reviewed in a public session of the freeholder board by Stephen E. Trimboli, of the firm Trimboli and Prusinowski, the law firm handling both actions for Morris County. The presentation highlighted figures from the county’s Department of Finance that show for every $1 of salary for a county employee, the county pays, on average, an additional 66 cents on benefits.

“The general public does not realize the unbelievably high costs of public employee pensions and benefits,” said Morris County Freeholder John Krickus, a budget committee member. “For example, the average private sector 401k match is 4 percent to 6 percent, costing $4,200, versus Morris County paying 23 percent of salary toward pensions, or $19,000 for uniformed officers.”

The presentation also indicated for an active law enforcement employee with a base wage of $82,000, the county contributes $15,600 to that employee’s annual medical insurance cost of $25,500. Once that retired uniformed officer turns 65 with Medicare as his or her primary insurer, the county continues to contribute more than $10,000 to cover what Medicare does not.

The ruling in the Bergen County case in effect allows the unions to exclude any county government representative from negotiations with Sheriff’s Office employees, said Trimboli, who added the consequences could be severe.

“This lower court decision seriously undermines the county’s right to negotiate and could have a considerable negative impact on the county’s budget process,” Trimboli said. “It would also place sheriffs in an untenable position of being forced to negotiate subjects over which they have no control.”

The freeholder board agreed and authorized joining the lawsuit seeking to have this decision reviewed and reversed by the state’s highest court.

In the PBA case, the county successfully appealed the original award, but a second arbitrator, while striking down the 2011 increase, essentially gave it back, according to Trimboli, by awarding increases in excess of 2 percent for 2012 and 2013. This, Trimboli said, in spite of the fact that for those years, a 2 percent cap on such increases was in place statewide, and despite all other county unions accepting increases of 2 percent or less during those years.

Freeholder Krickus said, with the rising costs of health insurance and other benefits provided by the county to its current and retired employees, it is vital for the freeholders to maintain control over negotiating those economic benefits as well as salaries.

“These are significant costs that our taxpayers are bearing,” Krickus said. “With Governor Christie’s reforms, we have been able to negotiate within the cap over the past few years. The county has to maintain its position at the bargaining table if the freeholders are to continue to negotiate and restrain these very high costs.”