By Briana Vannozzi
What’s the right amount of pay for New Jersey police officers? That question is now swirling as state Treasury data, analyzed by NJTV News and various media outlets, show the median salary for roughly 19,000 municipal police officers was just over $105,000 in 2016. The highest tend to be in wealthy, suburban towns — mostly in Bergen County where the cost of living is higher. But those directly involved with negotiating municipal salaries say there’s a lot more behind that number.
“First of all, to be a candidate you have to have a four-year degree. As of late we’ve been hiring mostly transfers because there was a period in time where the alternative route had dried up, so there’s a lot of factors that go into the hiring and promotion of officers here in the community,” said Paramus Borough Mayor Richard LaBarbiera.
LaBarbiera says salary data sets are a snapshot that need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. According to Treasury data, Paramus officers had the sixth highest median salary in the state, just over $142,000. According to LaBarbiera, it’s not just about having the tax base to pay more, but compensating for highly skilled recruits.
“For example, how many years of service on average that police department has for their officers? So it is a complicated analysis and I don’t think it’s fair just with one broad brush to judge,” LaBarbiera said.
The municipal officer salaries surveyed in the data averaged more than 18 years on the job, meaning they reached top pay.
“The rate of increase is much slower than it used to be, so your property tax average rate increase is now 2.3 percent and people say, ‘but I thought there was a cap on property taxes at 2 percent’ and there is a cap on most parts of the property tax,” said Michael Darcy from the New Jersey League of Municipalities.
According to the League of Municipalities, the hard 2 percent cap placed on municipal budgets in 2011 has kept salary growth at bay. Charlie Schwartz with the State Policemen’s Benevolent Association says it’s also negatively affected recruitment.
“The guys that are out there looking to become officers are seeing this that the raises are under 2 percent, the contributions to health care averaging over $1,000 a month out of the officer’s paycheck, the pension costs have gone from 8.5 percent to 10 percent,” Schwartz said.
The PBA says collective bargaining has significantly changed under the new rules and argue against conclusions drawn by looking at salaries.
“We’ve also stretched out the pay guide, salary guide. Instead of doing three to five years to reach top pay, now it’s taking 12 to 14, 15 years in some cases. And at that point some guys are saying it’s just going to take me too long to reach top pay. I’m going to go find another career. I went to college, I’m going to take my chances elsewhere,” said Schwartz.
Though the data showed crime-ridden cities, like Camden and Paterson, tend to have lower median salaries — below six figures — calling into question how cash-strapped towns can attract higher skilled recruits, if they can’t afford to pay. Both New Jersey’s League of Municipalities and state PBA cautioned against drawing connections between crime data and salaries. The PBA says compensation is needed to get people on the job.
“It’s hard to tell a guy that you’re going to be putting your life on the line, you’re going to be rotated around the clock, you’re going to be giving up your holidays, giving up your weekends, you’re going to be missing your kid’s sports events, certain things you won’t be able to get to with your wife, or family or husband, and these are things all taken into consideration,” Schwartz said.
Statewide municipal recruitment has been down, but there’s no way to tell if compensation is a factor.