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N.J. police salaries rank highest in nation with median pay of $90,672
Mitsu Yasukawa/The Star-LedgerCloster Police Officer Vincent Aiello, 31, was a New York City police officer and joined Closter Police Department in 2003, makes a routine patrol in the town in August.Officer Vincent Aiello guides his patrol cruiser slowly down the leafy main drag of this quiet Bergen County town, past the coffee shop, the hair salon and the boutiques. He passes a serene procession of manicured lawns and Little League outfields. Further along, there’s a reservoir, a fishing pond and a farm stand. • Story by Chris Megerian• Data analysis by Sean Sposito Aiello’s beat is Closter, 3.3 idyllic square miles with 8,675 people. It’s a far cry from Aiello’s first job as a cop in East Harlem, where someone once smashed a window of his patrol car by throwing a heavy object off a rooftop. A busy night in Closter is a car crash, a burglar alarm, maybe a domestic dispute. "There isn’t much violent crime here," he said. "I wanted that smaller community. I wanted to know Mrs. Smith who lives on Main Street." Search N.J. Police Salary, Crime Databases: • How much do cops make in your town? • Violent crime rates by municipality He is also working in the state with the highest-paid police in the country. Last year, Closter had the sixth-best-paid department in New Jersey, with a median salary of $122,181 before overtime. Seventeen of its 20 officers, including Aiello, made at least $100,000. Aiello doesn’t set his own salary any more than he sets the penalty for tickets he writes. But wages like his weigh heavily on local government these days, at a time when debate rages over how much towns can pay public employees. More coverage: • N.J. police contracts benefit from salary arbitration threat, officials say "We have a very good police force," Mayor Sophie Heymann said. "But it becomes a budgetary problem. This is universal. The other towns around here have the same problem." A Star-Ledger analysis shows the average municipal cop in New Jersey is paid 80 percent more than the average resident, and three of 10 made at least $100,000 last year. In addition, police tend to be paid the best in small towns with little crime. Among the other findings: • The median salary for the state’s 20,525 municipal officers was $90,672 last year, meaning half earned more and half earned less. • A total of 6,198 municipal officers made at least $100,000 last year. Ninety-nine of 466 towns that pay police have six-figure median salaries. Most are in North Jersey, primarily Bergen County. • Suburban cops are paid the best while city officers generally make less and rural cops make the least. The Star-Ledger’s analysis is based on the 2009 base salaries of all municipal officers paying into the police and firefighter pension fund by the end of March, when the statistics were collected. It includes municipal officers at all ranks — from patrolmen and detectives to sergeants and chiefs — but not state troopers, sheriff’s officers or county and state investigators. A small minority of officers in a separate pension fund are not included here. Overtime, which can earn police several thousands of dollars more a year, is not included in the pension data The Star-Ledger analyzed. And the analysis does not factor in benefits such as health care, which can significantly increase overall compensation. "Any police officer that says they’re not making enough money needs to re-examine themselves," said Saddle Brook Township Police Chief Robert Kugler. In that Bergen County town, 30 of 31 officers made six figures last year, and the median salary was $121,177. Police say their salaries reflect New Jersey’s high cost of living, years of experience on the job and union contracts allowing officers to quickly rise to the top of the pay scale. They also say they have recently made sacrifices in union negotiations and are being forced to pay more toward their health care. In addition, it’s a dangerous job. "These guys are earning their money every day," Irvington Police Director Joseph Santiago said. "You pay a cop to deal with the stuff you don’t want to deal with." THE VALUE OF SAFETY For years, New Jersey has paid a premium for two pillars of civic life: safe streets and good schools. But now, with high property taxes and a prolonged economic recession, officials and residents are wondering whether the state can afford that vision. "Having excellent police and having excellent schools is important to what New Jersey is. People put up with the high costs here because generally the quality of life is good," said James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers. "We all are questioning, are we rich enough to maintain our standard of living?" Just last week, Gov. Chris Christie proposed more cuts to benefits for public employees, including police. Possible changes include rolling back a 9 percent pension increase from 2001 and requiring cops to serve more years to get the same pensions. But so far schools have been the primary flash point, and Christie has directed his harshest rhetoric toward the teachers union and demanded that teachers forgo pay raises. So far police have escaped similar pressure on salaries even though they also accrue regular raises, leading one lobbyist to describe them as a protected class. Judging by median salaries, municipal police make $33,205 — or 58 percent — more than teachers. And like teachers, police are backed by powerful unions that wield political influence — and campaign checks — at the local and state level. Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said the comparison is "apples and oranges." "The uniformed services are on the front lines of public safety every day," he said. "Their jobs are inherently dangerous, even deadly. That can apply to rural and suburban areas as well." But state and local officials are increasingly scrutinizing the police as they struggle to close yawning budget gaps. "If municipal coffers were flush with cash, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation," Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said. As New Jersey towns brace for a tighter 2 percent cap on property tax increases, state lawmakers are examining ways to help them lower costs, including limits on union contract increases and changes to the arbitration process where a moderator is used to settle labor disputes. Places as divergent in size and demographics as Newark and Manalapan have threatened to lay off cops to make ends meet. Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith, who laid off and then tried to rehire 20 officers this year while wrestling with budget problems, said tackling police compensation is difficult but inevitable. "It has a propensity to be a dangerous job; the public wants to compensate police differently," he said. "But the increasing property tax load makes it a difficult thing for municipalities to maintain." LESS PAY, MORE CRIME The job can be the most dangerous in urban areas like Irvington, a three-square-mile township adjacent to Newark with almost 60,000 people. During his 28 years on the job, Sgt. Peter Burgess has been cut, hit by cars, smashed in the head with a baseball bat and shot at twice. "They usually got bad aim," he said. "Thank God for that." At a recent roll call for eight members of an anti-drug task force, Burgess rattled off crime reports: a rash of about 20 auto thefts in two areas of the township, several armed robberies. One of his officers is Anneesha Ford, who has been with the department for four years. Her sister-in-law is also a police officer, but in Bergen County, making "way over $100,000." "I see her and I think, you don’t do half the things we do," Ford said. "She writes tickets." The differences between Irvington and Closter are striking. The crime rate in Irvington — calculated as offenses per 1,000 residents — was 77 in 2008, the last year for which Uniform Crime Report statistics are available. That’s almost nine times higher than in Closter. The violent crime rate is 105.5 times higher. But the median salary in Irvington was $89,068 last year, about $33,000 less than in Closter and below the statewide median. While Closter is ranked sixth in pay, Irvington is 245th. Oliver, the Assembly speaker, said "something is wrong with that picture." She said police pay should be linked somehow with the type of work they do. Other high-crime urban areas also had salaries below the statewide median. Newark, the state’s largest city, was just under, at $90,160. In Camden, routinely among the country’s most violent cities, the median salary was $79,656 last year. Richard Loccke, a Hackensack labor attorney who represents several local police unions, said poorer areas have long paid their officers less. "That’s a conundrum that nobody’s gotten by," he said. "(Are salaries) based on the ability to pay, or is it based on the type of work?" NORTH VS. SOUTH Some of the disparities in police pay are geographic, and salaries drop in the southern part of the state where the cost of living is lower. The median salary for municipal police in Bergen County, $109,700, was 60 percent higher than the median salary in Salem County, $68,792, the lowest in the state. (For reference, that’s higher than the median salary for all teachers in the state, $57,467.) Residents, officials react to police salary costs: "If cuts are going to be made, they should be made across the board. I don't want to say police aren't worth the amount of money they make. But I feel education is equally important." - retired special educator Palma Crooks, 46, of Norwood "I can go to sleep at night if we cut a recreation program. You can't sleep if you're doing without public safety." - North Brunswick Mayor Francis Womack "They're out there every day doing their job. I feel they're worth their money." - Closter barber George Eichler, 64 "Any police officer that says they're not making enough money needs to re-examine themselves." - Saddle Brook Township Police Chief Robert Kugler "These guys are earning their money every day. You pay a cop to deal with the stuff you don't want to deal with." - Irvington Police Director Joseph Santiago "Having excellent police and having excellent schools is important to what New Jersey is. People put up with the high costs here because generally the quality of life is good. We all are questioning, are we rich enough to maintain our standard of living?" - James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers "If municipal coffers were flush with cash, we wouldn't even be having this conversation." - Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) "I see her and I think, you don't do half the things we do. She writes tickets." - Irvington police officer Anneesha Ford, whose sister-in-law is an officer in Bergen County "Behind the scenes they wield a considerable amount of power. They're more powerful than any other interest group in the state, including the teachers." - League of Municipalities Executive Director William Dressel on police unions. In Bergen County, 59 of 68 towns have median police salaries above $100,000. The highest median pay in the state was $134,132 in Rochelle Park, where 19 cops patrol a one-square-mile borough near the intersection of the Garden State Parkway and Route 80. Some officials said they just can’t skimp on public safety. "I can go to sleep at night if we cut a recreation program. You can’t sleep if you’re doing without public safety," said North Brunswick Mayor Francis Womack, whose police have a median salary of $111,629. Palma Crooks, 46, of Norwood, also said she’s not bothered by how much police earn. But as a retired special educator, she said if teachers are pressured to forgo raises, police officers should, too. "If cuts are going to be made, they should be made across the board," she said. "I don’t want to say police aren’t worth the amount of money they make. But I feel education is equally important." TIP OF THE ICEBERG There’s much more to police compensation than just salaries. L. Mason Neely, East Brunswick’s longtime chief financial officer, said a police officer making $100,000 a year may cost a town twice that when benefits, pension payments and other expenses are considered. Overtime is one of those major expenses. Police are paid extra to work outside of regular hours, such as attending court hearings or pursuing long investigations. There’s also overtime when working holidays or covering shifts for sick colleagues. Last year, Closter police earned a total of $157,190 in overtime, Chief David Berrian said, about $7,859 per officer. This year they’ve capped overtime at $125,000, but Berrian expects the department to hit that limit Oct. 1. Edison, where 164 of 186 officers made six figures last year, paid out $790,946.62 in overtime, about $4,252 per officer, local union President Keith Hahn said. Overtime costs are up 9.9 percent from last year because the town has lost officers, Hahn said. Police can also boost their salary by working for private companies, such as security jobs or flag-waving at construction sites. Last year Closter officers earned a total of $80,800 in outside employment, Berrian said. This year, police around the state have made several sacrifices — some willingly, some under pressure of layoffs. Jim Ryan, spokesman for the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, said the union has encouraged its local chapters to go without to save fellow officers’ jobs. "If they’re going to lay off officers, and you’re going to make concessions to keep these officers, make concessions," he said. Police are now required to pay 1.5 percent of their salary toward health care, like other public employees. Currently all police who started before May can receive more generous pensions than other public employees because the payments are calculated based on their final year of salary. (Pensions are determined by base salary, not including overtime.) New officers will have their pensions calculated based on a three-year salary average, and Christie wants that same standard to apply for everyone, regardless of when they started. Police pay more into the pension fund than civilian public employees do: 8.5 percent of their salary, rather than 5.5 percent. But they also cost municipalities more. For every dollar a town pays a police officer, it owes 31 cents to the pension fund, Neely said. By comparison, towns pay 11 cents for each dollar paid to civilian workers. Neely, who studies financial issues for the League of Municipalities, said that’s because police pensions are costlier and the state isn’t picking up its share of the bill. Thanks to a 2000 law, police can also retire after 20 years on the job, regardless of their age. Cops say that’s because police work is a young person’s job: "When you call 911, you don’t want grandpa showing up," said Burgess, the Irvington sergeant. But Neely said it leaves towns on the hook for a longer period. The average retirement age of all police officers in the pension fund is 55, but today the average retiree is 49, he said. After 20 years on the job, retiring cops get at least 50 percent of their base salary but no health benefits. After 25 years they get at least 65 percent and health benefits. Christie would change that so police get 60 percent after 25 years and 65 percent after 30 years. GARDEN STATE SALARIES Police salaries stack up well when compared with other professions. The average municipal police salary last year was $89,630, compared to the state’s average per capita income of $50,313. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show municipal police make more than civil engineers ($87,090), architects ($85,050) and rank-and-file firefighters ($71,810). They make less than dentists ($154,130), veterinarians ($117,170) and real estate brokers ($96,240). Federal data on 2009 wages also show New Jersey officers are the best paid in the country — the median salary for municipal and sheriff patrol officers is $80,120. (That’s lower than The Star-Ledger’s calculation for median salary, which includes superior officers.) New Jersey is rivaled only by California at $78,460, according to the federal statistics. Illinois trails in third with $69,900. New York is ninth at $60,620, Connecticut 10th at $60,490, and Pennsylvania 19th at $54,140. RankCountyMedian Police Pay 1Bergen $109,700 2Middlesex $97,022 3Ocean $95,946 4Morris $95,164 5Monmouth $95,016 6Somerset $94,486 7Mercer $93,246 8Passaic $92,756 9Essex $90,160 10Hudson $90,082 11Union $88,150 12Sussex $86,690 13Cape May $84,572 14Atlantic $83,440 15Hunterdon $81,864 16Warren $80,420 17Burlington $80,011 18Camden $79,686 19Gloucester $78,872 20Cumberland $72,100 21Salem $68,792Jeffrey H. Keefe, a professor at the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations, said New Jersey is unique because it’s almost exclusively composed of metropolitan areas, where salaries trend higher. Even if residents do not live in a city like Newark or Jersey City, they still live within the orbit of metropolises like Philadelphia and New York City, he said. On top of that, New Jersey is an expensive place to live, with salaries geared to match. "You pick an occupation, we’re at the top," he said. "If we want our police to live where they work, we’re going to have to pay them well." But data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show police here are paid better in comparison with other professions than they are elsewhere in the country. The average rank-and-file cop nationwide makes 27 percent more than the average resident. In New Jersey, the average rank-and-file cop makes 55.3 percent more. GOOD AT THE GAME Most conflicts over police salaries and benefits occur at the local level, where individual towns and local unions hash out contract terms. But in the past, police have also won benefit increases in Trenton, while largely staying out of the public fray during contentious budget negotiations and hearings. "That’s not their style. Behind the scenes they wield a considerable amount of power," League of Municipalities Executive Director William Dressel said. "They’re more powerful than any other interest group in the state, including the teachers." Fairleigh Dickinson University survey analyst and political science professor Dan Cassino said teachers and cops have something important in common: It’s very hard to measure whether they’re doing a good job, either with test scores or crime rates. "As a result, the justification for their salaries comes down entirely to PR," he said. "The only way to get more pay is public appeal." And in that game, police have a natural advantage — everyone needs protection. Pete McDonough, a political consultant, said it’s difficult to attack the people charged with safeguarding the public. "We’ve seen police get killed in the line of duty," he said. "We count on the police." In addition, police unions have avoided additional scrutiny because they choose less combative tactics than the teachers union does, he said. "The PBA has rarely had to show its muscle," he said. A spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said Christie has forced them to be more vocal. "Public education is being targeted," Steve Wollmer said. "If we don’t speak out about what the governor is doing, shame on us." When police unions do flex their muscles, it’s a powerful force, McDonough said. He recalled working as former Gov. Christie Whitman’s spokesman, counting votes in the Assembly during a push to require arbitrators to consider economic factors when awarding contracts. "We were talking to people and cutting whatever deals we had to cut," he said. "But when it came to a vote, several Republicans whose votes we counted on turned to us and said, ‘We’re sticking with the PBA.’ " Tom Haydon, Lisa Fleisher, Frederick Kaimann and Local News Service reporter Brent Johnson contributed to this report.
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