The “Gift Clause” Would Force Camden Police Union Bosses To Do Police Work

While Camden New Jersey is being devastated by budget cuts, homicides are accumulating at record pace and unemployment is skyrocketing. Despite the city’s plight, the Mayor Dana Redd is unable to even order two police union bosses, whose salaries are paid for by taxpayers, to fulfill their duties to serve the Camden community.

On August 7, Mayor Redd announced a pair of public safety reform measures. First, the Camden Police Department is merging with the county-run Camden Metro Police Division, following years of negotiations. Second, all uniformed officers are to report for duty and work as police officers, including union leaders on “release time” — a collective bargaining privilege that allows officers to perform union activities, in lieu of police duties, while getting paid by the department.

Camden police union bosses John Williamson and Kevin Wilkes have decried the mayor’s call for them to work as police officers as “retaliation” for publicly opposing the merger. They also claim the mayor’s measure ending release time would violate the police union’s collective bargaining agreements with the city. In short, the two officers claim that their union contract requires taxpayers to pay them for conducting union activities, rather than provide police services.

City residents have paid two police union presidents their full combined salary of $180,000 in 2011 for the equivalent of 13 years to do work for the union while avoiding the performance of any and all law enforcement work. Not only that, but the primary activities performed on union release time include collective bargaining and representing members at grievance and lobbying, which pit the union against the city.

In addition, public employees on union release time accumulate pension and healthcare benefits without contributing a penny to pay for them. According to the New Jersey Division of Pensions and Benefits formula, Williamson alone is eligible for a lifetime pension amounting to slightly over $16,000 per year for life, just for doing union duties.

In July, 13 murders occurred while these police officers refused to perform police work and the city suffered a 30 percent absentee rate from police officers protesting they are overworked.

Union President Williamson calls the mayor’s actions “a farce and a sham,” that obstructs their work. Wilkes asserts that, “one sergeant and one detective are not going to solve the crime problem… It’s obviously retaliation.” In further defense of union release time, Wilkes commented, “We are working. … We’re just not working to what the mayor and what everyone seems to want. We’re working for what our membership wants.”

On August 13, the police union filed a lawsuit to cancel the mayor’s orders to require all police officers to work as… well, police officers.

Camden, like municipalities across the country, is struggling to balance its budget while maintaining essential government services. Union release time is a cut Camden can clearly afford, especially when the activities performed during release time commonly conflict with the public interest. Collective bargaining, lobbying, and representing members in grievances benefit only union members, not the public.

But the real question taxpayers need to answer in these times of economic hardship is: Should taxpayers  pay individuals to do work for private entities — such as a union — that provides absolutely no benefit to the taxpayer? Thankfully, taxpayers in Camden have recourse available to them.

The New Jersey state constitution prohibits what is in effect a gift from the taxpayers to private individuals and entities. The provision, called the “Gift Clause,” prohibits subsidies of any kind to private individuals, associations, or corporations. It explicitly states, “No county, city, borough, town, township or village shall hereafter give any money or property, or loan its money or credit, to or in aid of any individual, association or corporation.”

It is time to stop giving away taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars to public servants who refuse to perform work we all pay them to do. Enforcing the Gift Clause would be a good start.

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