Town, police pleased with new agreement

BY LAUREN CIRAULO Staff Writer

HOWELL — The Township Council and the Howell Police Department have finalized the terms of a new four-year contract, and have done so in record time, according to municipal officials. The current current ends on Dec. 31. Officials said the agreement will save the township an estimated $400,000.

“Rather than go through a long, painstaking process, we found common ground we thought was best for the citizens of Howell,” Township Manager Helene Schlegel said.

Negotiations for the contract, which will begin Jan. 1, 2010 and run through Dec. 31, 2013, started in the summer with both the township and police union asking for numerous stipulations.

However, both sides believed that a reduction in costs was necessary and agreed to make several unspecified compromises. The negotiations, according to Guy Arancio, president of PBA Local 228, were resolved in a surprisingly expedient manner.

“This (negotiations) could have gone on for years. We could not have reached this agreement without the superior help of the township manager,” Arancio said. “With her skills, she was able to coordinate and reach a solution without it dragging on for years.”

The contract calls for a 3.5 percent annual increase that will be applied after tenure, holiday and educational incentives are factored in, which is a decrease from the almost 4 percent annual increase in the current contract, according to the information provided.

According to the existing contract, the starting salary of a first step patrolman was $42,796 in 2009, whereas a 10th step patrolman collected a salary of $97,919 in 2009. A salary guide that will indicate the pay scale from 2010 to 2013 has yet to be finalized.

Another stipulation includes an option for officers who have accrued 25 or more unused sick days to sell back four of those days to the township. But the primary departure from the current agreement is in the police department’s health benefits.

Arancio said the new contract transitions officers from a private health plan to a state health plan. The township moved the police department out of state benefits and into a private package in 2006, a shift that was supposed to save the township $1.5 million over four years.

While it is not specified how much savings was realized, the Transport Workers Union, which represents municipal employees, opposed the move at the time. The TWU filed a grievance with the Public Employment Relations Commission citing the arbitrary change in the health plan as an unfair labor practice.

The shift back to state benefits, however, will allow officers to keep their coverage uninterrupted and without significant change from the current plan.

“Switching back to state health benefits saves the township an exorbitant amount of money,” Arancio said, estimating about $400,000 in savings. “It’s basically the same exact benefits, but it allows the township to go back to the state and save taxpayers money.”

Terms also require a 1 percent payment to health benefits, without exceeding $1,000. Currently, Schlegel and Police Chief Ronald Carter are the only township employees who contribute to their health care plan due to their previously negotiated contracts. All municipal employees are expected to follow suit with the police department and move back to state benefits.

According to officials, the township, the PBA and the Superior Officers Association (which represents higher ranking police officers) are collectively pleased with the recently finalized agreement.

“This is a very fair contract agreement for the time,” Arancio said. “It’s fair for the police department, fair for the township and, most of all, fair for the citizens. We think this is the best solution.”

Mayor Robert Walsh expressed similar sentiments, adding that an otherwise difficult process progressed smoothly due to the abilities of the police department.

“One of the tough things to do is contracts. There’s right, wrong, indifferent, black and white, and gray,” Walsh said. “But we know one thing that is not gray in Howell. We have the finest police department in the United States. It’s not as tough to figure out a contract with them.”