Bergen County may be forced to pay millions of dollars to county police after a state arbitrator ruled in the officers’ favor following a prolonged contract dispute.
Elizabeth McGoldrick, from the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission, said in a decision earlier this month that the 2015 merger between the now-defunct Bergen County Police Department and the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office should have triggered a “poison pill” provision in the county police contract that boosts officer salaries considerably.
The order means the Sheriff’s Office owes three-and-a-half years of back pay to 78 current and former members of the Bureau Police Services, as the county police unit is now known. Although neither the Sheriff’s Office nor the police union would provide estimates, legal filings indicate the sum could add up to millions.
“It’s a significant victory,” said Michael Bukosky, the union attorney.
Sheriff Anthony Cureton, a Democrat, can direct his legal counsel to appeal the decision in state Superior Court. But a spokesman said that decision had not yet been made.
County officials brought the two independent departments together in February 2015 in what they said was a money-saving move that would streamline services and eliminate redundancies. Before, the officers wore different uniforms, had different logos, followed different procedures and reported to different bosses — an elected Sheriff commanded the sheriff’s officers, while the county executive appointed a director to lead the county police.
The departments also had different responsibilities. The county police patrolled the highways, while sheriff’s officers transported prisoners, guarded the courthouse and provided security for the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack.
In a prepared statement, Cureton said the merger, which predated his term, “could have been done in a smoother manner.” But it accomplished its goal of saving taxpayer money and trimming duplicative services, he said.
“My primary focus now is on moving the office forward and ensuring that optimal law enforcement services continue to be provided to the residents of Bergen County,” Cureton said.
McGoldrick’s ruling appears to settle the longstanding argument between the Sheriff’s Office and the union about whether the merger was, in fact, a merger. At the time, Bergen officials touted it as merely a “realignment” that would shift control of the county police to the Sheriff from the county executive.
The move was backed by Jim Tedesco, then the newly-elected Democratic county executive, and John Molinelli, who was then the county prosecutor. The deal promised to make the county police a bureau of the Sheriff’s Office while eventually lessening its roster to 48 officers, from about 100.
Officials framed it as a realignment to avoid triggering the poison pill, which would immediately return the department to being one of Bergen County’s highest paid if it was merged or disbanded.
Still, the transition was rocky.
The police union clashed with its new boss, former Sheriff Michael Saudino, as he slowly replaced county police customs, procedures and operations with his own. But it only filed a grievance with the state in February 2016, when Saudino changed officers’ uniforms and badge, legal briefs said.
“At that point, the PBA considered their organization was no longer independent or autonomous, their identity was visually indistinct from sheriff’s officers’, and there had been a complete absorption of all former police policies, procedures, rules and practices into those of the Sheriff’s Office,” McGoldrick’s decision read.
The constant fighting peaked two years ago when Saudino laid off 26 bureau officers and demoted 11 more. At the time, Saudino said a budget crunch triggered the move — he needed three dozen more sheriff’s officers to meet court security and bail reform mandates, but he could not hire because of a budget cap.
Saudino, a Democrat, later resigned after the release of a tape containing racist and homophobic remarks he made in early 2018, leaving behind a Sheriff’s Office besieged by lawsuits and rife with dissension. Chris Weston, the union head, said last week the union’s relationship is far better with Cureton than it was with the disgraced former sheriff.
Still, Cureton must deal with the poison pill, a thorny reminder of past acrimony.
Kathy Donovan, the former Republican county executive whom Tedesco defeated in 2014, negotiated the provision in return for restructuring the union’s salary guide, according to a legal briefing from the Sheriff’s Office. Donovan fought hard against merging the departments, saying a county police department offered the best chance for helping Bergen’s 70 municipalities save money by sharing law enforcement services. Donovan even sued to stop the merger when she was executive, but dropped the suit after she lost the election.
Tedesco’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Michael Sheinfeld, spokesman for the freeholder board, said freeholders stand behind the Sheriff. But he declined to comment further.
The Sheriff’s Office still maintains that the Bureau of Police Services is a separate unit replete with distinct civil service titles, different responsibilities and its own union and command structure, the filings said.
The Sheriff’s Office also alleged that the union filed its grievance far later than the allowed 30-day window, then failed to prove the county’s actions constituted a merger. Furthermore, the poison pill is illegal because it limits the county’s ability to reorganize, the filing claims.
“The merger clause effectively imposes a penalty … upon Bergen County taxpayers, should the county exercise its constitutional and statutory right to restructure its law enforcement services,” the filing said. “It is the equivalent of the proverbial hammer over the county’s head.”
McGoldrick still found in the union’s favor.
“The county police were not disbanded or dissolved, but they were merged and/or consolidated into the [Sheriff’s Office],” she wrote. “Therefore, they must be compensated in accordance with the merger clause of their agreement.”
The retroactive pay increases will date back to Jan. 4, 2016. The county must also recalculate overtime and pension payments made to the officers since then, said Bukosky, the labor attorney.