'They're just incompetent': Newark police unions say city failing to pay retired officers

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on December 08, 2014

NEWARK — During his 26-year career with the Newark Police Department, Bill Tartis spent hundreds of nights waiting for a phone call that might never come.

As a one-time member of the force’s Emergency Response Team, Bomb Squad, and Emergency Service Unit, he signed up to spend multiple nights per week on call, to provide a hand should any of the units be called into action.

For his inconvenience, he was to be paid 90 minutes’ wages for each of those nights, even if he was never brought on for duty — a burden he says he took on in hopes of paying for his daughter’s college education.

“You know how many things I have missed, as far as family functions? Having to stay around the house waiting for that call?” he said. “I put my whole life around this.”

Though he amassed approximately 6,000 so-called “on-call service time” hours before retiring in 2012, Tartis says he has yet to see a dime of the nearly $90,000 he is owed, despite a clause in the city’s police contract that requires the payments to be made upon separation.

The 63-year-old Neptune resident says he has forced to take two part-time security jobs to make up the lost income. Meanwhile, police labor leaders say his situation is just one example of the city’s repeated failures to fulfill its financial obligations to both current and former officers.

James Stewart Jr., President of the city’s chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the city’s Finance Department regularly chooses to dispute payments and other matters that have already been ruled on by an arbitrator, forcing the two parties back into court to battle over payments as small as a few hundred dollars.

In those battles, the union has emerged victorious 1,376 times over the last 20 years, compared to just 27 losses, he said.

“This is not the way things are supposed to operate, anywhere,” he said. “If the citizens of Newark knew how much money this city wastes just in arbitration fees alone, I think they would be protesting on the steps of City Hall every day.”

City spokeswoman Sakina Cole said the city had no response to the allegations or several questions regarding the payments posed by NJ Advance Media.

Mayor Ras Baraka has announced his desire to cut certain police compensation such as detective stipends and on-call service time like that owed to Tartis. And while the city is taking other steps to pare down a deficit that stood at $93 million earlier this year, including adopting a budget that allows for state oversight of its finances, labor leaders said they don’t believe a lack of resources is behind its failure to pay officers.

“They’re not sitting on easy street by any stretch of the imagination, but most people aren’t, and they deal with it,” said Steve Richman, an attorney representing the Newark FOP.

Stewart said the problems have also spread to pension deductions, with newer officers having twice the appropriate amount taken from their pay, while others are seeing no deductions at all. Attempts to meet with Baraka and others to discuss the problems have fallen on deaf ears, he added.

John Chrystal, president of the Newark Superior Officers Association, said the problem has extended beyond members of the department’s lower ranks.

“Sometimes it takes months or years to get paid. Elderly members, I’m fielding phone calls from them all the time,” he said. “They split hairs. They make allegations about time records. It’s the employers’ responsibility to maintain those. They’re just incompetent.”

Joe Grosso, a 78-year-old former Newark cop who retired in 1995 after 30 years with the department, said he has been struggling to obtain Medicare Part B reimbursement checks for the last two years.

While the biannual checks add up to only about $1,200 annually, he said his greatest frustration is with the simple lack of a concrete answer about the delays.

“I just don’t like their attitude. They haven’t given us any money. ‘We’re working on it’ — that’s all we get,” he said. “Those are their famous words.”

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