PATERSON, NJ – The city’s police union would get $1.9 million under a tentative settlement of a federal lawsuit accusing Paterson of not paying its officers their overtime fast enough, officials said.
The Paterson Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 1 filed the lawsuit in February 2012 after the City Council had refused for several months to sign off on overtime payments due police officers. At the time, the council was demanding more information about the police department’s overtime spending, including details on the hours and work that officers were doing to get the extra pay.
“This is outrageous,’’ said Councilman Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman of the proposed settlement. “We’re a distressed city. We can’t afford this. We have to do everything in our power to make sure this doesn’t happen again.’’
“You can never win in this city,’’ said Councilman Rigo Rodriguez. “You ask questions because there has to be checks and balances and then this happens.’’
Neither Alex Cruz, the PBA president, nor the union’s lawyer, Mark Rushfield, returned phone messages seeking their comments for this story.
The settlement would not become final until approved by the city council, said Business Administrator Charles Thomas. That may happen as soon as August 21, officials said. The lawyer handling the case for Paterson met with the city council in closed session on Wednesday night to discussion the proposed deal.
“I’m not happy, and the people shouldn’t be happy,’’ said Mayor Jeffery Jones, criticizing the council for taking the actions he says triggered the lawsuit. “This is what happens when the council doesn’t follow the contract. It ends in a hardship like this.’’
Jones said he hoped the council members had good intentions when they blocked the overtime payments in 2012, and were not simply grandstanding. “They were flexing muscles they had no right to do,’’ said the mayor. “I understand the need to hold the police department accountable, but there were better ways to have done it.’’
Councilman Kenneth Morris, one of the leaders of the council’s decision to hold back the overtime, said he thought the union was being greedy by seeking extra money in its lawsuit, especially because the city is mired in an ongoing fiscal crisis.
“They’re the highest paid employees in the city, you’d think they would be more grateful to the taxpayers,’’ Morris said, asserting that 90 percent of the city’s police officers live outside Paterson. “I could see if they didn’t get their money, but they got their money.’’
Councilman Anthony Davis said he was “totally disgusted” by the proposed settlement and said he felt the police union’s leadership was wrong for filing the lawsuit.
“They were always going to get their money, we just wanted to know what was what,’’ said Davis. “The public safety committee was asking questions and asking for documents and they (the police department) never produced anything.’’
In its lawsuit, the PBA maintained the city was violating federal labor law by not paying the overtime quickly enough. Within months of the lawsuit, the council relented and released the frozen overtime money from the winter of 2012. But the union was seeking payment that extended far beyond that time period. Both the city and the PBA hired auditors to examine the timeliness of the overtime payments over the previous three years.
Councilman Kenneth McDaniel, who was elected in May 2012 after the overtime battle already was being waged, said he would not have supported his colleagues’ decision to hold back the money if he were in office at the time.
“Being familiar with unions, I would have known they would strike back if their members were not getting paid like they’re supposed to,’’ McDaniel said. “The council took a chance and we got hurt. The net result hurts the Paterson taxpayers. The PBA has taught the city council a costly lesson.’’
But Morris maintained that the council was not solely to blame. “We refused to pay the overtime,’’ Morris said, arguing that the issue in the lawsuit was actually the city’s track record of making delayed payments that been a problem for many years before the 2012 overtime battle. Morris said the police department itself bore some responsibility because of problems with the way its ranking officers processed overtime requisitions.
The city already had to pay the union $1.2 million in a previous lawsuit on the same issue of late payments, Morris said.
But some officials argued that the union would have taken the city to court if not for the council’s outright refusal to make payments in early 2012.
Officials said the city would be able to pay the $1.9 million in installments. Some of that money would cover the union’s legal bills. Meanwhile, the city has rung up more than $200,000 in expenses in the case, including an $85,000 bill for auditing services, officials said.
“It’s another blow to the taxpayers,’’ said Council President Andre Sayegh. “In hindsight, it cost us to hold it (the overtime) back.’’
The union was seeking $4.7 million from the city, officials said. “We fought hard to get it down to $1.9 million,’’ Jones said.
Officials said it’s not clear exactly how the money will be distributed among city police officers.
From The Paterson Press