Arbitrator Rules Camden Can’t Afford Raises

CAMDEN, NJ &#8211 Citing Camden’s dire financial situation, and high unemployment and “abject poverty” among its residents, an arbitrator today rejected several contract demands, including pay raises, made by the union of Camden’s superior police officers.

The Camden Organization of Police Supervisors, which has worked without a contract since 2009, sought a five-year contract with retroactive annual pay raises ranging from 2.5 percent to 0 percent in 2014, the proposed final year of the new contract.

The ruling means a pay freeze will continue for the officers.

Also rejected was the union’s request for a 7.5 percent increase for officers working rotating shifts, among other proposals.

The union submitted the contract dispute to arbitration in October.

In his decision, arbitrator Frank A. Mason noted that state funding of the city has been reduced nearly 14 percent since 2010. More than 70 percent of Camden’s budget is dependent on state aid. Property taxes, he noted, constitute only 17 percent of the city’s income.

“I place a great deal of emphasis on the interests of the citizens. The city is virtually in abject poverty and heavily dependent upon the federal government and state for financial support,” he said. “There is no flexibility on the part of the employer as to payment of any cost elements of a prospective award by me.”

He noted that residents of Camden are beset by “outrageous rises in crime rates” amid significant cuts in the ranks of police.

“These burdens have caused the city to deteriorate rapidly. It has become a desperate situation for police as well as residents,” he said.

“For these reasons I feel compelled to take the side of the city. The city simply has no capacity to comply,” he said.

Mason chastised the union. “Of prominent clarity is the virtually absolute refusal of the union to recognize the depth of the fiscal crisis,” he said.

In rejecting the 7.5 percent increase for the rotating shifts, he said “such assignments are ordinary in police work and in the particular economic environment found here would be excessive.”

Christopher Gray, an attorney for the union, said they plan to appeal as soon as next week.

“We think the arbitrator was wrong,” he said. “He did an injustice to the city of Camden’s superior officers.”

The superior officers’ union’s contract expired in December 2008 and was extended for one year. The union represents 31 supervising officers. More than 200 rank-and-file officers are represented by the Fraternal Order of Police, whose contract also is in arbitration.

Meanwhile, Camden County is proceeding with plans to replace the city police department with the metro division of a new county-run force.

Mason ruled that the superior officers’ contract should now expire in January 2013, a year longer than the city had sought but a year less than the union’s proposal.

Mason also capped vacation and holiday pay at $15,000.

Mason said that the city had been unable to pay arbitration awards made in the last three to four years because it lacked money and noted that the city was appealing those awards.

Gray said supervising firefighters recently received annual raises from $1,500 to $1,900 per year, and rank-and-file firefighters also were recently awarded raises.

He said the city did not appeal the raises for the superior firefighters, but did appeal the raises for the rank-and-file.

City spokesman, Robert Corrales, said the city was pleased with Mason’s award.

“We believe the arbitration decision is reasonable given the City of Camden’s economic realities,” Corrales said in an e-mail.

Police superior officers’ union president Kevin Wilkes could not be immediately reached.

From The Philadelphia Inquirer

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