Now that Harrison has averted a potential fiscal crisis by the state granting its request for $1.36 million in transitional aid for 2016, it’s going back to Trenton for another favor – additional police hirings.
But, at the same time, the town has to deal with a potential bombshell that could have drastic consequences for its fire department.
Without the special aid, a loss of ratables this past year – due partly due to the loss of a PSE&G tax appeal – could have added several hundred dollars to the average tax bill, town officials had forecast.
As things now stand, town CFO Gabriela V. Simoes Dos Santos said, a higher municipal tax levy – despite decreased local spending – means a 2.3% increase in the tax rate over 2015 which on the average home assessed at $145,000, translates to $30 per quarter.
“Residents should expect a fourth quarter [tax] bill in line with their third quarter bill and a reduction in the first and second quarter bills of 2017,” she said.
Whether Harrison will continue to depend on the special state aid for next year – particularly as it approaches the new year without new labor contracts for police and firefighters – remains to be seen.
And therein lies a cautionary tale: In a Sept. 7 letter to the town confirming the special aid, Timothy Cunningham, director of the Division of Local Governmental Services, advises Harrison that, “the award is contingent upon the Town negotiating, to the satisfaction of the Division, a contract with the City of Newark to provide firefighting services or a collectively bargained agreement with the Harrison Fireman’s Mutual Benevolent Association that will achieve substantially similar cost savings.”
Reportedly, if the town cannot conclude an agreement with the firefighters, then the town could end up terminating all 29 members of the HFD and they would have to apply for jobs with the Newark Fire Department – without any guarantee of being hired.
The contract between the town and Harrison FMBA Local 22 expired about nine months ago and as of last week, both sides remained guardedly optimistic they could find some type of compromise to avert a Newark takeover.
Local 22 spokesman Steve Fostek said that the union is “aware of the conditions” set by DCA and that local president Eric Houseman “has been in contact with the mayor to schedule another meeting. We’re hopeful we can resolve this.
“The Newark deal is still on the table but we’re hoping we can close the gap [on money issues] and put this to bed.”
Fostek said the state “is pushing the Newark deal” and is also “looking for a 56-hour work week but Local 22 has voted to reject that.” The state FMBA has also come out against that work schedule, he added.
Mayor James Fife said last week that it wasn’t clear whether Newark Mayor Ras Baraka had endorsed a prospective takeover of the HFD. And, he added, Newark has yet to share details about the proposal.
Meanwhile, Harrison is petitioning LGS for permission to promote cops to several superior officer slots being vacated through retirements and to replenish its patrol ranks.
To that end, on Sept. 13 the town filed a “request for employment approval” to implement these moves:
• Promote one sergeant to lieutenant to cover the retirement of Lt. Michael Daggett, scheduled to leave Oct. 1.
• Promote three police officers to sergeant (one to cover the sergeant replacing Lt. Daggett and two to cover the retirements of Sgt. Steve Krushinsky, who left Sept. 1; and Sgt. Tom Corblies, leaving Nov. 1.
• Hire three police officers to cover the above moves.
“These actions will save the town money through the difference between the three new police officers’ starting salaries and the salaries of the three officers at maximum who will be promoted to sergeant. These savings will amount, for the first year, to approximately $200,000,” the town’s application reads.
Starting pay for police officer in Harrison is $36,777; first step for sergeant is $109,670; and, for lieutenant, $115,339.
Krushinsky was earning $127,524; Corblies made $123,049; and Daggett is at $134,116.
With the retirements, the application says, the HPD will be down to 35 members – down from the 38 it has been maintaining, the application says.
Recently, the town says, it has experienced a “recent rash of gun/weapon-related robberies/incidents … that have concerned the residents and governing body members.”
Even with a 38-member force, the application continues, “the town does not have enough officers for a special task force to combat these incidents. Accordingly, the town would like to hire up to five additional entry-level police officers, so that a task force can be deployed to combat the trend.”
The town contends that the projected $200,000 savings, “coupled with approximately $170,000 in ICE (U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement) money that can be used for additional officers’ first-year salaries and costs, will cover the expenses of all of these promotions/new hires for at least the first year.
“Thereafter, the town will confer with the DCA (state Department of Community Affairs, which oversees LGS) regarding the number of officers that will be retained on a permanent basis. In this regard, it is expected that in the next few months there will be several more retirements, which vacancies can be back-filled with the additional officers that we seek to hire hereby.”
One of those anticipated retirees is Lt. John Osterkorn, who has filed for a pension application premised on a Dec. 1 departure, according to Police Chief Derek Kearns.
While waiting for the state’s reaction, Kearns said, he, together with the mayor and Police Committee, are preparing interim steps to deal with the robberies.
“We’ve identified the problem areas and we’re assigning a radio car and a plainclothes cop in an unmarked car in an effort to deter/prevent/apprehend the bad guys,” Kearns said. And the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office has agreed to assist with patrols of Frank E. Rodgers Blvd. (a county road) during early morning hours, he said.
The town is also, he said, exploring the possibility of acquiring APLR (Automated License Plate Reader) cameras that could be attached to the Passaic River bridges to “give us intelligence to help monitor the community at all entry points.”
“We’re looking at $20,000 to $25,000 per camera,” the chief said.
Another tool that Kearns sees as critical to successful enforcement strategy would be implementation of a 12-hour work schedule for local police officers which, he says, would give the department more personnel on the street along with the flexibility to create specialized units, he said.
It would also, he said, trim police overtime which now stands at about $330,000. “Last year we spent $388,856 and at our present rate, we’re going to exceed that this year,” he said.
That concept, he said, is being actively discussed at labor negotiations with the police union, whose contract expired Dec. 31, 2015.