By Ron Leir
For six lucky men in blue, it was a day to celebrate … for now at least. Following an agreement between the local police unions and the town, the Kearny Town Council voted last Tuesday, May 22, to authorize promotions in the ranks, effective immediately.
The beneficiaries are: Capt. John Gouveia; Lts. David Feldhan and Timothy Wagner; and Sgts. Peter Gleason, Paul Bershefski and Patrick Sweeney.
The promotions came about after the Kearny Patrolman’s Benevolent Association’s Local 21 and the Kearny Police Superior Officers Association had filed grievances over certain of their members doing jobs in a higher rank but not getting higher pay appropriate to that rank. The town asserted it had a “managerial prerogative” to assign anyone to a job.
But after many hours of negotiations, with lawyers involved on both sides, the governing body has seemingly remedied that inequity by appointing those cops to “permanent” positions and pay levels appropriate to their ranks.
However, there’s one sticky point: As explained by Mayor Alberto Santos, “Our labor contracts with the police unions expire Dec. 31, 2012, and we have money in the 2012 budget to pay the incremental increases covering the promotions. We don’t know what our (police) costs are going to be in 2013 so the agreement provides that unless there’s a new contract in place by Jan. 1, 2013, those individuals who were promoted will revert back to their old (previous rank) salaries.”
So the apparent solution could end up causing some grief for the unions – and six of their members – if no new labor agreement can be negotiated by year’s end.
A captain’s base pay is currently $145,645 a year; a lieutenant makes $129,462; and a sergeant receives $115,076.
Santos said that the town was able to “satisfy the department’s supervisory needs while staying within its budgetary restraints.”
Three of the promotions were made to fi ll vacancies created by retirements, while the rest were done to “backfill” vacancies left in lower ranks, Santos said.
Santos said an “unexpected retirement” – which came about when a Kearny police officer opted to take a job in Austin, Texas, for job security reasons – gave the town about $73,000 in savings to help accommodate the promotions for 2012.
But the Police Department “is still undermanned,” said Councilwoman Laura Cifelli- Pettigrew.
And so is the Kearny Fire Department, FMBA President Jim Carey warned, as he called the council’s attention to the department’s recent trimming of minimum manning levels, from 17 to 15 per shift. “The FMBA will not condone this reduction,” he said. The lives of civilians and firefighters, alike, are being endangered, Carey asserted. Fire Chief Steve Dyl said he’s had to shut down a ladder company at the Kearny Ave. firehouse for lack of personnel. And, he warned, “This will be the wave of the future until we get (more) staffing.” Santos conceded that, “we don’t meet NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) minimum staffing standards” but, at the same time, he said the town needs to review the Fire Department’s “salary structure.” Carey called for a referendum on firefighter hirings.
Meanwhile, the Police Department has lost 16 members through retirement since 2011 and “about half” were superior offi cers, according to Police Chief John Dowie. Even with the promotions, the department will still fall one lieutenant and one sergeant short of what its Table of Organization allows, Santos said.
This is happening, “while police calls are at a record number,” Santos conceded. In 2011, police responded to more than 31,000 calls for assistance, he said.
Also, as a result of the downsizing, Dowie said he’s deploying single offi cer patrols, instead of paired, during the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift. Still, Dowie said, “This will put more cars on the street overnight which helps cut our response time and gives more visibility which, naturally, results in crime deterrence. It also enables us to cover a wider area which allow us to devote more time to some of our growing outlying areas such as the Harrison Ave. and Belleville Pike areas where we … have experienced crime….”
At least, the mayor said, the town should realize some savings in overtime as a result of the promotions. So far this year, the department has spent about $390,000 in overtime pay, according to Kearny CFO Schuaib Firozvi. Probably half of that amount was for superior officers, Santos said.
John Gouveia, whose brother, Anthony, is a Kearny Police lieutenant, is a law school graduate, the department’s computer expert and a runner who placed fifth in a recent 5-K race in Washington, D.C., to honor police officers who died in the line of duty during the past year.
David Feldhan, son of a retired Hudson County police offi cer and a former teacher, is the department’s accident specialist who was singled out for commendation by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 2005. He was credited for capturing a Newark homicide suspect in 2004.
Timothy Wagner was chosen Policeman of the Year in 2002, just a year after he was appointed to the department, in recognition of “several high-profi le jobs.” He’s earned three merit service bars and serves as a medic on the Tactical Services Unit. Most recently, he led the Community Police Unit.
Peter Gleason, a detective, was credited for his actions in 1999 for defusing a potentially dangerous situation when he disarmed a suicidal gunman in 1999. He scored second highest in the state in the Civil Service exam for sergeant. Gleason has served in the warrant and vice squads.
Paul Bershefski, son of a retired New Jersey State Police trooper, got kudos for reviving a choking man several years ago while serving with the Tactical Services Unit. Bershefski has been a stalwart supporter of the Police Unity Tour four-day bicycle riding fundraiser with proceeds going to the National Law Enforcement Offi cers’ Memorial and Museum.
Patrick Sweeney, a former Paramus police offi cer, was credited with bringing order and accountability to the department’s record room, the repository for all types of criminal evidence. An accomplished bagpiper and golfer, he organized a local “Adopt the Block” program.
“We may be downsized, but we’re not down,” Dowie said, getting cheers from a packed-house audience of family and friends of the newly promoted officers at last week’s Town Hall meeting. “Every man here is up to the task.”