Camden police officers who have long balked at a plan to replace their department with a county-run force were mulling Tuesday what a county official said was the "last offer" to resolve the dispute.
The mood among the officers, one said, was "depressed and deflated."
The approximately 260 officers were given layoff notices a week ago, and the terms they received from the county Monday evening held out only a vague promise of hiring them onto the new force, they said.
"It's like a crapshoot," a city police detective said Tuesday, rating the chances of officers' being rehired if they agreed to proposed contractual terms, including cutbacks in fringe benefits, that would apply to the planned county force.
"You say yeah, but you don't know what's going to happen to you," said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Said another officer who has nearly 20 years of experience: "Everybody here is extremely depressed and deflated. Morale is nonexistent. It's in the toilet."
Officers were told of the county's proposed terms - which would be the foundation of a new contract - at an emotionally charged, closed-door meeting Monday at the Fraternal Order of Police hall in Camden. They decided not to vote immediately on the terms, asking to get them in writing.
"This is our last offer. I think it's fair," Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said Tuesday. "All we've really done is eliminate those financially frivolous clauses that helped put Camden City into its financial predicament."
If the terms are agreed upon by a Jan. 31 deadline and officers apply to the new force by that date, the county said it would "consider for hiring" all of them, rather than only up to 49 percent as officials were planning to do to avoid having to comply with more generous, expired police contracts.
Under the county's proposal, the FOP would continue to represent the rank and file of the new force.
Camden officers who have put in at least 20 years as of the deadline would have the option to take an early retirement package of a full pension and benefits.
Officers' years of experience - which affect salaries, pensions, and benefits - would be recognized on the new force, but not necessarily their current ranks.
The union, in turn, would have to dismiss all pending litigation and not fight the proposed county force in court.
John Williamson, president of the rank-and-file union, said he was reviewing the proposal and declined to comment Tuesday. In a text message, he said the FOP had five suits outstanding along with unfair labor practices and grievances.
The anxiety among city police officers over the county's proposed terms arose as the freeholders prepared to sign off Thursday on $5.5 million in state start-up funding to pay for the planned force.
The grant would cover a little more than half of the projected $10 million in transition costs. The start-up money would be the first public financial commitment from Gov. Christie, who has expressed support for the county force.
It is not clear what long-term financial commitment Camden will get from the state. Nearly 70 percent of the city's $150 million budget is funded by the state.
The county force's metro division, which would patrol the city, is projected to have around 400 uniformed officers and 100 civilians. The larger force would not cost a lot more than the current Camden force, county officials say, because of anticipated savings from cutting extras such as shift differentials.
Base salary ranges, however, are expected to be comparable or even higher.
Salaries for current Camden patrolmen range from $47,177 to $80,191; patrolmen on the new force would make $47,177 to $87,409.
Cappelli and Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd have repeatedly said they want many Camden officers to be part of the force, which advocates say would better protect the city.
But, Cappelli said Tuesday, "we can't commit to a number [of Camden officers] until everybody applies and goes through the application process, like every other candidate. If you're deemed a qualified candidate, you'll be rehired."
The Camden officer with nearly 20 years of experience said he found himself in a quandary.
He doesn't qualify for early retirement. He said he would agree to the terms if he felt assured all current officers would be rehired. But he said he doubted that would happen.
"They want us to sign an agreement where you're going to cause your brother and sister to lose their jobs," he said.
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