Mixing Politics And Paychecks
Elsewhere in these pages is a news item concerning the results of a salary referendum conducted in Union Township, N. J., at the recent general elections.
The Union Fire Department, which employs the referendum method to set pay scales for its 61 members, found to its consternation that the voters of the community increased the salaries of probationary firemen to the same level as company captains. To add further to this confused state of affairs, firemen with two years or more service were raised to the same salary level as battalion chiefs—or above that of the captains! In effect, the local citizens mandated that the privates outrank their commanders!
This ridiculous situation had its origin at the elections of 1955 when the firemen were successful in convincing the voters that control of all salaries should be removed from the governing body and placed in the hands of the electorate. Prior to the 1958 elections it had been decided that salary differentials between the officers and men should be improved. At the same time it was realized that any such proposition appearing on a ballot would be complicated and confusing to the voters. In addition, some of the department officers maintained that the elected heads of the local government should have the power to set the pay scales.
It was decided it would be wise at this time to return this power to the governing body. Prior to the elections it was mutually agreed the firemen would ask the voters for an $800 raise. At the same time the people would be requested to approve a second proposal to return control of the officers’ salaries to the township committee.
The propositions were duly placed on the election ballot and publicity given to both questions. It is reasonable to assume the latter was in direct proportion to the number of supporters most interested in each proposal. The results were astonishing to the firemen! The pay question for the men was approved by a comfortable majority. The officers proposal was defeated by a substantial amount!
The firemen of this community were elated—for the moment. The officers stunned! Once the glow of success diminished the rank and file suddenly realized the electorate, by their magnanimity, had actually removed one of the most important incentives for promotion in the department, and in effect, left them at a dead end. Certainly a promotion to officers rank is no attraction if it requires a pay cut to achieve!
At the same time the public had degraded some of the very men upon whom it must depend for leadership of its fire protection service. This unfortunate action was in all probability quite accidental but the consequences may he more far-reaching than is now generally understood.
The salaries approved by the general public become effective January 1st. Unless this inequity is adjusted by that date only the chief and his deputies will enjoy a clear-cut salary differential over the men. Each day beyond that which the affected officers fail to draw pay commensurate with their duties and responsibilities will create new problems in management and efficiency. If an equitable solution is not quickly found and placed in effect the result may be catastrophe. Command morale may be expected to disintegrate completely under such an absurd situation.
As this is written corrective action has already been instituted. The township officials have requested special legislation to grant them the power to set an equitable salary differential effective with the new year. A bill to accomplish this has already been passed by the New Jersey Assembly and is awaiting expected favorable action of the Senate which meets during this month. If successful, it will then require signature of the Governor in order to become law. If unsuccessful the local officials have the power to grant the affected officers a $400 temporary bonus as a stop-gap measure.
Obviously the voters of this community were confused and minconstrued the intent of the officers’ proposition. This may have been due to lack of concerted effort to provide sufficient details for them to reach an intelligent decision before going to the polls. Whatever the reasons this unfortunate occurrence should serve as a warning to those who would loosely employ the referendum in the future.
Salary schedules are most important to the wellbeing of both an individual and a fire department. As such, they should be set with extreme care and only after calm deliberation. It is inconceivable that they should be left to whim or chance!