SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange Board of Trustees clapped back at the state police and fire unions last night during the BOT online meeting. The New Jersey Policeman’s Benevolent Association and the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association sent an open letter to the trustees on Tuesday, May 26, about the requested two percent pay freeze for the budget years of 2020 and 2021.

The statement was aimed directly at Village President Sheena Collum and accused her of “union busting tactics” and putting “her ego, her social media accounts and her political interests ahead of public safety.”

 “I do recognize the gravity of receiving a statement such as that,” said Collum. 

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She pointed out the inaccuracies in the statement, including that questioning Collum’s “tactics” has resulted in “discipline of police officers that threatens the ability to provide adequate public protection.” 

“It appears that they are suggesting that there is some level of retaliation that is occurring,” in the police and fire departments, said Collum. “In this community…internal affairs investigations are handled by our Internal Affairs Bureau, there’s certainly no politics or members of the governing body who get involved with that process.”

She also pointed out that the statement’s claim that she personally threatened “that if police officers and firefighters do not accept her ‘deal’ community pools will remain shut” is untrue; as part of the consent agenda for the meeting, a pool manager was hired for the season. 

Contrary to the statement’s sentiment that she singularly drove the budget process, she said, “We have had a very collaborative process between our administrator, Mr. Loehner, our chief financial officer [and] the leadership” of Finance Committee Chair Karen Hilton, and members of the Finance Committee, Trustee Walter Clarke and Trustee Donna Coallier, she said. The trustees “have been instrumental in where we have been able to end up” with the budget, she said. In addition, “We’ve had a great and collaborative relationship with our citizen budget advisory committee.” 

“The response from the labor unions is very, very disappointing,” said Hilton. “I feel very strongly that we’ve done a good job of collaborating with each other and analyzing the budget… It was a thorough process and a good end result,” she added.

Regarding the unions, “we haven’t gone against longevity or the step increases,” in asking for the two percent pay freeze, Hilton pointed out. 

Hilton was referring to the situation where union members who might receive, for example, a five percent step increase in pay according to their contract are being asked to take a three percent increase instead for parity with the two percent gain the non-union municipal employees will not receive for two years.

“I think our budget is a strong one, and we should keep moving forward with it,” Hilton concluded.

The residents of South Orange are "in a tough spot,” said Coallier. “We have people in our community who pay property taxes who are themselves front line workers, or are themselves restaurant workers who no longer have jobs.” This pay freeze, she said, will help “balance the budget in such a way as to lessen the burden on the most vulnerable parts of our population… Some of our residents are really, really hurting.”

Clarke called the accusations of the statement “unfounded,” and offered that “we made an ask that none of us wanted to make…of the employees of this town, and they stepped up and agreed to it” with the understanding that “we are looking at some pretty rough times ahead. Unfortunately, this response shows a tone deafness to that, as well as the actuality of the economic situation most people are living.”

Trustees Steven Schnall, Summer Jones, and Bob Zuckerman also each voiced support for the budget, the process, and Collum herself. 

Collum updated the Village that the Teamsters Union, which did not initially agree to the pay freeze, is now on board. Teamster municipal employees work at the Public Works Department, the Records Bureau, and as part of the secretarial staff.

The archive of the meeting will be posted on the South Orange website; it was not live as of press time.

The public hearing for the budget will be at the June 8 Board of Trustees meeting.

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