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No Limit? Paterson Police Department Allowing Officers to Accumulate More Leave Days Than Stipulated in Union Contract

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PATERSON, NJ – The city’s top law enforcement official says Paterson has not been enforcing a police union contract provision that’s supposed to limit the size of severance payments made to retiring officers.

The contracts say police officers can carry no more than a single year’s allotment of leave days from one year to the next. The limit is supposed to prevent officers from accumulating massive amounts of leave time that they can cash in at retirement.

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But Police Director Glen Brown said the department has not been enforcing that contract provision.

“I can’t crack down on it because of the staffing issues we have that are the result of the layoffs and all that,’’ said Brown. “It’s difficult to enforce that rule at this time. I have people that have exorbitant amounts of time right now.’’

For Paterson property owners who were hit with a 29-percent tax hike last year, the retirement payouts represent a major expense. The city this year already borrowed $2.8 million to cover severance checks for retiring police officers and firefighters. The municipal budget says the total value of accumulated leave time for all city employees at the start of the fiscal year was about $12 million.

When asked why the city was not enforcing the leave time limit set in the police contract, Mayor Jeffrey Jones said he would check with Brown. “The directors are directors, they’re working on the day-to-day operations of their departments,’’ Jones said. “I would be micro-managing if I stuck my nose in there.’’

But the mayor also said he would not want to establish a precedent of not imposing the limit.

Brown revealed that Paterson has not been enforcing the leave policy for police officers when PatersonPress.com asked him about the amount of time accumulated by acting Police Chief William Fraher.

Payroll records show Fraher carried over 625 leave hours at the end of last year. That’s 249 hours more than the one-year allotment of 376 hours – or 47 days - that he’s supposed to be able to carry over from year to the next under the contract, the records show. Fraher was named acting chief at the beginning of February.

“He’s not the only one,’’ Brown said. “I have a number of people carrying over excessive amounts of hours. You should ask whoever is feeding you information about the acting chief to give you information about the other guys.’’

PatersonPress.com this week filed a request under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act for a breakdown of the leave time hours owed to all city employees.

The police contracts say officers must get approval from the chief to carry over the maximum of one-year’s allotment of leave days. That allotment of days varies depending on officers’ rank. The contracts also say that officers can carry over extra time if management asks them to forego vacation leave.

City payroll records show that Fraher has been able to preserve some leave days by rearranging his work schedule during the past several months while he taught criminal justice classes on Fridays in Manhattan.  The documents show that Fridays were listed as Fraher’s regular days off for nine of the first 10 weeks after his teaching semester began, and Saturdays were listed as regular work days. Brown has said Fraher needed to work on Saturdays to meet with the State Police.

If Fraher retired right now, he would stand to receive a severance check of well more than $100,000. That would include his unused leave time, personal hours and comp time as well as the terminal leave pay of 90 days’ salary that all police officers get.

In January, the state rejected the city’s proposed $250,000 severance package with former police chief James Wittig, a deal that included about $136,000 for unused leave time.  In his final years as chief, Wittig had been allowed to carry over far more than one-year’s allotment of leave days. At one point, Wittig carried over the equivalent of three years’ worth of leave days, city records show.

The chief before Wittig, Lawrence Spagnola, also had a six-figure severance package when he retired in 2006.

In their discussions on the Wittig deal, city council members had said they wanted to make sure that the trend of lucrative severance deals would stop with the next chief. But that may be hard to do if the contractual limit on accumulating leave days is not being enforced, they said.

“It’s a problem,’’ said Councilman William McKoy, head of the public safety committee. “It’s a financial issue as well as a managerial issue.’’

“We have to pay the bill as we go,’’’ McKoy added. “It’s not good government policy to defer prior years’ expenses.’’

Councilman Julio Tavarez was surprised to hear that the carry-over limit on leave days was not being enforced. “We shouldn’t be hearing about this from the press,’’ Tavarez said. “This is an issue the director discusses with us so we know what’s going on. It should be open and clear.’’

Tavarez said the city council will end up having to deal with the fallout from excessive accumulated time. “It’s not a good thing for us,’’ he said, “because we either have to raise taxes or borrow money to pay for it.’’

McKoy said the practice of allowing high-ranking officers to accumulate large amounts of leave time was not fiscally responsible. “We don’t want to deal with this after the barn door has been left open,’’ McKoy said. “The thing is to keep the barn door closed.’’

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