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Somerset County Sheriff's Office v. Somerset County Sheriff's Fop Lodge #39

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


January 25, 2008

IN THE MATTER OF SOMERSET COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, APPELLANT,
v.
SOMERSET COUNTY SHERIFF'S FOP LODGE #39, RESPONDENT.

On appeal from the Public Employment Relations Commission, Docket No. IA-2005-083.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued January 7, 2008

Before Judges S.L. Reisner, Gilroy and Baxter.

Somerset County appeals from a November 21, 2006 decision of the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) affirming an interest arbitration award setting terms for the contract between the County and its sheriff's officers, represented by the Somerset County Sheriff's FOP Lodge #39 (FOP). We affirm.

I.

A collective bargaining agreement between the FOP and the County expired on December 31, 2004. After failed negotiations regarding a successor contract that was to cover the period of January 1, 2005, through December 31, 2007, the parties submitted the matter to interest arbitration pursuant to N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16. A hearing was held before an arbitrator appointed by PERC. In broad outline, the County offered the FOP a 1% annual increase, while the FOP demanded a 6% increase. On August 31, 2006, the arbitrator rendered an award giving the sheriff's officers a salary package which was near the midpoint of the parties' respective bargaining positions and which was comparable to the salary increases agreed on in the County's previous settlement with the corrections officers. To the extent relevant to this appeal, we discuss the details of the award later in this opinion.

On October 3, 2006, the County appealed the salary ruling to PERC, which affirmed the award on November 21, 2006. This appeal followed.

II.

"[I]nterest arbitration concerns the resolution of disputes about new collective bargaining agreements . . . [It] is essentially a creature of statute. With interest arbitration, PERC provides arbitrators who must apply specific uniform criteria." Policeman's Benevolent Ass'n Local 292 v. Borough of N. Haledon, 158 N.J. 392, 400 (1999).

The Legislature has specifically mandated interest arbitration to resolve collective bargaining disputes between public employers and law enforcement employees, recognizing the "unique and essential duties" those employees perform, the "life threatening dangers [they] regularly confront" and the importance of maintaining the "high morale" of these employees. N.J.S.A. 34:13A-14(a). The same statute, however, also recognizes the importance of giving "all due consideration to the interests and welfare of the taxpaying public." N.J.S.A. 34:13A-14(b).

Pursuant to statutory amendments enacted effective in 1996, L. 1995, c. 425,*fn1 when a public employer and a law enforcement agency reach an impasse, the dispute is to be resolved by conventional arbitration, in which the arbitrator hears the dispute and crafts the terms of a new agreement. See N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16d. Either party may appeal the arbitrator's award to PERC, which in turn "may affirm, modify, correct or vacate the award or may, at its discretion, remand the award to the same arbitrator or to another arbitrator, selected by lot, for reconsideration." N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16f(5)(a).

In deciding an interest arbitration, the arbitrator must consider the following factors:

The arbitrator or panel of arbitrators shall decide the dispute based on a reasonable determination of the issues, giving due weight to those factors listed below that are judged relevant for the resolution of the specific dispute. In the award, the arbitrator or panel of arbitrators shall indicate which of the factors are deemed relevant, satisfactorily explain why the others are not relevant, and provide an analysis of the evidence on each relevant factor:

(1) The interests and welfare of the public. Among the items the arbitrator or panel of arbitrators shall assess when considering this factor are the limitations imposed upon the employer by P.L.1976, c.68 (C.40A:4-45.1 et seq.).

(2) Comparison of the wages, salaries, hours, and conditions of employment of the employees involved in the arbitration proceedings with the wages, hours, and conditions of employment of other employees performing the same or similar services and with other employees generally:

(a) In private employment in general; provided, however, each party shall have the right to submit additional evidence for the arbitrator's consideration.

(b) In public employment in general; provided, however, each party shall have the right to submit additional evidence for the arbitrator's consideration.

(c) In public employment in the same or similar comparable jurisdictions, as determined in accordance with section 5 of P.L.1995, c.425 (C.34:13A-16.2); provided, however, that each party shall have the right to submit additional evidence concerning the comparability of jurisdictions for the arbitrator's consideration.

(3) The overall compensation presently received by the employees, inclusive of direct wages, salary, vacations, holidays, excused leaves, insurance and pensions, medical and hospitalization benefits, and all other economic benefits received.

(4) Stipulations of the parties.

(5) The lawful authority of the employer. Among the items the arbitrator or panel of arbitrators shall assess when considering this factor are the limitations imposed upon the employer by P.L.1976, c.68 (C.40A:4-45.1 et seq.).

(6) The financial impact on the governing unit, its residents and taxpayers. When considering this factor in a dispute in which the public employer is a county or a municipality, the arbitrator or panel of arbitrators shall take into account, to the extent that evidence is introduced, how the award will affect the municipal or county purposes element, as the case may be, of the local property tax; a comparison of the percentage of the municipal purposes element or, in the case of a county, the county purposes element, required to fund the employees' contract in the preceding local budget year with that required under the award for the current local budget year; the impact of the award for each income sector of the property taxpayers of the local unit; the impact of the award on the ability of the governing body to (a) maintain existing local programs and services, (b) expand existing local programs and services for which public moneys have been designated by the governing body in a proposed local budget, or (c) initiate any new programs and services for which public moneys have been designated by the governing body in a proposed local budget.

(7) The cost of living.

(8) The continuity and stability of employment including seniority rights and such other factors not confined to the foregoing which are ordinarily or traditionally considered in the determination of wages, hours, and conditions of employment through collective negotiations and collective bargaining between the parties in the public service and in private employment.

(9) Statutory restrictions imposed on the employer. Among the items the arbitrator or panel of arbitrators shall assess when considering this factor are the limitations imposed upon the employer by section 10 of P.L.2007, c.62 (C.40A:4-45.45).*fn2

[N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16g (emphasis added).]

While the arbitrator need not rely on all of the statutory factors, the arbitrator must at least consider the factors and explain why any factor not relied on is not relevant. This specific statutory requirement, added to N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16g in the 1995 amendments, L. 119, c. 425 § 3, reflects earlier decisional law from the Supreme Court:

[A]n arbitrator need rely not on all factors, but only on those that the arbitrator deems relevant. An arbitrator should not deem a factor irrelevant, however, without first considering the relevant evidence. An arbitrator who requires additional evidence may request the parties to supplement their presentations . . . however, the arbitrator need not require the production of evidence on each factor. . . . Such a requirement might unduly prolong a process that the Legislature designed to expedite collective negotiations with police and fire departments.

Whether or not the parties adduce evidence on a particular factor, the arbitrator's opinion should explain why the arbitrator finds that factor irrelevant. Without such an explanation, the opinion and award may not be a "reasonable determination of the issues." N.J.A.C. 19:16-5.9. Neither the parties, the public, nor a reviewing court can ascertain if the determination is reasonable or if the arbitrator has given "due weight" to the relevant factors.

. . . A reasoned explanation along those lines should satisfy the requirement for a decision based on "those factors" that are "judged relevant." Also, such an explanation should satisfy the requirement that the arbitrator "give due weight" to each factor. Anything less could contravene the Act's provision for vacating an award "for failure to apply the factors specified in subsection g. . . . ." N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16f(5). In sum, an arbitrator's award should identify the relevant factors, analyze the evidence pertaining to those factors, and explain why other factors are irrelevant.

[Hillsdale PBA Local 207 v. Borough of Hillsdale, 137 N.J. 71, 83-85 (1994) (citations omitted, emphasis added).]

In regulations adopted to implement N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16g, PERC likewise requires arbitrators to consider and explain all of the subsection g factors.

N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16g identifies eight factors that an interest arbitrator must consider in reviewing the parties' proposals. The arbitrator must indicate which of the factors listed in that subsection are deemed relevant; satisfactorily explain why the others are not relevant; and provide an analysis of the evidence on each relevant factor.

[N.J.A.C. 19:16-5.14(a).]

The regulations also implement a legislative requirement that PERC define "comparability," thus recognizing that the Legislature believed this to be an important factor:

N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16g(2)(c) lists as a factor "public employment in the same or similar comparable jurisdictions. . . ." Subsection a of section 5 of P.L. 1995, c.425 requires that the Commission promulgate guidelines for determining the comparability of jurisdictions for the purposes of paragraph (2)(c) of subsection g.

[Ibid.]

However, while PERC's regulation provides an exhaustive list of factors to consider in deciding whether certain law enforcement jobs are comparable, N.J.A.C. 19:16-5.14(c), the regulation does not indicate that comparability is the only factor an arbitrator should consider. See N.J.A.C. 19:16- 1.14(a).

In a series of cases, including Hillsdale, our courts have addressed the problem of arbitrators basing their decisions on only one or two factors without explaining why the other factors are not relevant or deserving of weight. Merely listing the other factors is not sufficient; an arbitrator must explain why they are not relevant or what, if any, weight they were given and why.

In Hillsdale, the Court reversed an arbitration award based on this deficiency, concluding that the arbitrator had failed to adequately consider the statutory factors, including, significantly, the public interest:

[a]lthough compulsory interest arbitration is essentially adversarial, the public is a silent party to the process. Compulsory interest arbitration of police and fire fighters' salaries affects the public in many ways, most notably in the cost and adequacy of police and fire-protection services. Indeed, section 16g expressly requires the arbitrator to consider the effect of an award on the general public. Hence, an award runs the risk of being found deficient if it does not expressly consider "[t]he interests and welfare of the public." N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16g(1).

[Hillsdale, supra, 137 N.J. at 82-83 (citation omitted).]

Likewise, in Twp. of Washington v. N.J. State Policemen's Benevolent Ass'n, 137 N.J. 88 (1994), the Court affirmed our decision that an arbitrator's award had improperly focused only on comparisons between contracts with law enforcement units in different municipalities, neglecting to consider the other statutory factors:

The basic flaw in the award is that the analysis of the statutory factors is deficient. In sum, the award neither identifies and weighs the relevant factors nor explains why other factors are irrelevant. Indeed, the award implies that a comparative analysis of salary increases in similar communities is dispositive. Furthermore, the arbitrator improperly placed on Washington Township the burden of proving that it was unable to pay "the 1% cost difference between the two offers." Little purpose would be served by repeating all that we said in Hillsdale about the need for arbitrators to render reasoned opinions.

Suffice it to say that instead of discussing the section 16g factors, the award simply relies on salary increases awarded in other communities and on Washington Township's perceived ability to pay the one-percent differential between its last offer and that of Local 206.

[Id. at 92.]

Following Hillsdale, supra, we have also indicated our disapproval of arbitration awards that narrowly focus only on comparisons with other law enforcement units within a county, even if the parties' submissions only focused on that issue:

Paramount public interests make it inequitable to order the governing unit (and in turn the residents and taxpayers) to be bound to an award and expend public funds merely because the arbitrator and parties failed to adequately comply with and address the statutory criteria beyond simply comparability with other law enforcement units and the non-statutory and abstract concept of the public employer's "ability to pay."

[Fox v. Morris County Policemen's Ass'n, 266 N.J. Super. 501, 513 (App. Div. 1993), certif. denied, 137 N.J. 311 (1994).]

In Fox, we affirmed the trial court's decision to vacate an interest arbitration award in favor of the Morris County sheriff's officers because the arbitrator erroneously grouped "together '[t]he interests and welfare of the public,' 16g(1), '[t]he lawful authority of the employer,' 16g(5), and '[t]he financial impact on the governing unit, its residents and taxpayers,' 16g(6), under the rubric of a nonstatutorily based category dubbed 'ability to pay.'" Id. at 516. We concluded that [t]he grouping of three of the statute's eight factors under the vague "ability to pay" label effectively renders two of the criteria of 16g mere surplusage. It also seriously undervalues the public's interests and welfare, factors which can fairly be said to always be relevant since the arbitrator's award may have a great impact on a governing body's policy decisions.

[Ibid.]

We also noted the problems inherent in over-reliance on internal comparisons with other county law enforcement contracts. In Fox, the arbitrator concluded that an earlier award to the County's corrections officers supported the sheriff's officers' proposal because it would "'maintain internal comparability' and foster stability between the law enforcement units." Id. at 509. In discussing the arbitrator's analysis of the second statutory factor, we noted the danger in this approach:

As for 16g(2), the statute requires a comparison with other employees, both public and private. No one in the instant case considered comparisons with private sector employment. In fact, the Sheriff argued to Judge Stanton that comparison with private employment is unnecessary. The [lower court] judge correctly called for a "thoughtful" comparison to be attempted, even if it proves difficult.

The arbitrator categorized an arbitration award involving the corrections officers as having "enormous importance in this case" and expressed his unwillingness to select the public employer's last offer because to do so would, in his words, "undo that salary scale established . . . through the . . . award[] of the [public] Employer's last offer" in that other arbitration. Over-reliance on maintaining parity with the corrections officers, however, promotes whipsawing, as there will be a constant need to increase each unit's wages in the unending quest for parity. Despite his claim that comparability in general was "not given determinative weight in this proceeding," the only realistic conclusion to be drawn from a reading of the arbitrator's opinion is that he was almost entirely influenced by maintaining parity with the corrections officers.

[Id. at 517-18 (emphasis added).]

With these precedents in mind, we turn to the case at hand. Our "scope of review of PERC decisions reviewing arbitration is sensitive, circumspect and circumscribed. PERC's decision will stand unless clearly arbitrary or capricious." Twp. of Teaneck v. Teaneck Firemen's Mut. Benev. Ass'n Local No. 42, 353 N.J. Super. 289, 300 (App. Div. 2002) (citations omitted), aff'd o.b., 177 N.J. 560 (2003).

In turn, in reviewing an arbitrator's decision, PERC follows Hillsdale, Washington Twp., and Fox, in determining whether the arbitrator gave due weight to the subsection g factors and whether the decision was supported by substantial credible evidence. Cherry Hill Twp., P.E.R.C. No. 97-119, 23 NJPER 287 (1997).

In reviewing the parties' challenges to the award, we must determine whether the arbitrator adequately considered the criteria in N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16g and rendered a reasonable determination on the issues in dispute. Our analysis is also informed by Hillsdale; Washington Twp. v. New Jersey PBA Local 206, 137 N.J. 88 (1994); and Fox v. Morris Cty., 266 N.J. Super. 501 (App. Div. 1993), certif. denied, 137 N.J. 311 (1994).

In Washington Twp., Hillsdale, and Morris Cty., the courts underscored that arbitrators should focus on the full range of statutory factors and not just police salaries in surrounding jurisdictions or the governing body's "ability to pay" the other party's offer. Hillsdale, 137 N.J. at 85-86; Washington Twp., 137 N.J. at 92; Morris Cty., 266 N.J. Super. at 516-517.

[Ibid.]

This is consistent with our decision in Teaneck, supra, 353 N.J. Super. at 306, that "PERC's appellate role is to determine whether the arbitrator considered the criteria in N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16(g) governing the issuance of an interest arbitration award and rendered a reasonable determination of the issue or issues at impasse that was supported by substantial evidence in the record."

PERC has determined that a public employer's pattern of settlements with similar employee units is an important consideration in applying one of the subsection g factors:

N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16g(2)(c) requires an arbitrator to consider evidence of settlements between the employer and other of its negotiations units, as well as evidence that those settlements constitute a pattern.

. . . Pattern is an important labor relations concept that is relied on by both labor and management.

. . . A settlement pattern is encompassed in N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16g(8), as a factor bearing on the continuity and stability of employment and as one of the items traditionally considered in determining wages. Thus, interest arbitrators have traditionally recognized that deviation from a settlement pattern can affect the continuity and stability of employment by discouraging future settlements and undermining employee morale in other units.

[Union County Corrections Officers, PBA Local 999 v. County of Union, 30 NJPER 38 (2004)].

The agency reached a similar conclusion in County of Essex and Essex County Sheriff and Essex County Sheriff's Officers, PBA Local 183, 31 NJPER 41 (2005). That is a rational policy determination, and is consistent with the general equitable concept that employees who perform similar job duties should receive comparable wages.

On the other hand, an arbitrator cannot focus solely on internal comparisons, and must explain how and why the arbitrator gave or did not give weight to the other statutory factors:

Fashioning a conventional arbitration award is not a precise mathematical process, Allendale Bor., P.E.R.C. No. 98-123, 24 NJPER 216 (29016 1998). Given that the statute sets forth general criteria rather than a formula, the setting of wage figures necessarily involves judgment and discretion and an arbitrator will rarely be able to conclusively demonstrate that his or her award is the only "correct" one. Allendale Bor. Some of the evidence may be conflicting and an arbitrator's award is not necessarily flawed because some pieces of evidence, standing alone, might point to a different result. However, the arbitrator should state what statutory factors he or she considered most important in arriving at the award, explain why they were given significant weight, and explain how other evidence or factors were weighed and considered in arriving at a final award.

[In re Bor. of Lodi and PBA Local 26, 24 NJPER 466 (1998) (emphasis added).]

Likewise, in County of Essex and Essex County Sheriff and Essex County Sheriff's Officers, PBA Local 183, 31 NJPER 41 (2005), PERC observed:

The Reform Act reflects the Legislature's intent that arbitrators focus on the full range of statutory factors not just public safety salaries in surrounding jurisdictions or the governing body's ability to pay the other party's offer. Accordingly, the Act expressly requires the arbitrator to indicate which of the statutory factors are deemed relevant, satisfactorily explain why the others are not relevant, and analyze each relevant factor. It also expressly requires the arbitrator to consider the limitations imposed on the employer by the CAP law. However, while the Act directs that "due weight" be given to the taxpayers interests, it does not automatically equate the employer's offer with the public interest. The Legislature also recognized "the unique and essential" duties of law enforcement officers and found that an effective interest arbitration process was requisite to maintaining their "high morale," thereby ensuring the efficient operation of public safety departments and the protection of the public. N.J.S.A. 34:13A-14. Accordingly, arbitrators have viewed the public interest as encompassing the need for both fiscal responsibility and the compensation package required to maintain an effective public safety department with high morale.

[Ibid. (citations omitted).]

The question in this case is whether the arbitrator, and PERC, adhered to these well-understood standards. The County contends that the arbitrator, and PERC, gave too much weight to internal comparisons with other County law enforcement agencies and gave no weight to the other statutory factors. The County argues that the arbitrator "excluded consideration of other County contracts with aligned and non-aligned employees." In that regard, the County urges that "[h]ad the Arbitrator considered evidence of other County and public and private sector salaries and contracts he should have concluded instead that the County's offer was more consistent with the economic realities of the County and best served the interests of the taxpayers." The County also argues that the arbitrator did not explain why he gave little weight to factors the County considered important, such as the low increase in the Consumer Price Index.

In this case, the arbitrator was aware of the County's financial status, because his opinion began by summarizing that information as background. Notably, the average household income in the County was about $12,000 above the state-wide average, and the County's tax rate decreased between 2004 and 2005, while its valuations increased. The arbitrator then summarized the parties' positions.

The FOP argued that sheriff's officers performed work comparable to that of other law enforcement officers, and that they were underpaid compared to law enforcement officers in other counties and compared to other law enforcement units within Somerset County. The FOP also contended that the County's 2005 budget was $5.5 million under its statutorily- mandated budget cap, and that the Sheriff's Office had a large enough budget to accommodate a wage increase. The FOP also relied on the fact that the County was relatively wealthy, and that its tax rate had decreased each year for the past ten years.

The County's position was that the FOP's demand was excessive particularly in light of the fact that Sheriff's officers received annual "step increases" in addition to contract wage increases, while non-law enforcement employees did not receive step increases. The County also noted the Sheriff's officers' already-generous benefit package, comparably lower private sector wage increases, lower average contract settlements in state and local governments, lower contract increases for law enforcement employees throughout the State, and small increases in the CPI. The County also contended that the Sheriff's officers' existing wages compared favorably with those in other counties, and that their job duties were not fairly comparable to those of police officers.

The arbitrator then proceeded to his own analysis, acknowledging his obligation to consider the factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16g.*fn3 He first concluded that neither party's proposal was justified. He rejected the FOP's attempted comparison with other county sheriff offices, because its analysis omitted counties where the sheriff's officers received lower salaries, and he explained why sheriff's officers were not comparable to municipal police officers. He also rejected the County's proposal because it gave "virtually no weight to internal comparisons" with other Somerset County law enforcement agencies. He noted that the County "relies mainly upon the cost impact of step increases . . ., the cost of living, internal comparisons with its non-law enforcement units and private sector wage settlements."

The arbitrator began his analysis with this lengthy general discussion:

All of the statutory criteria have some relevance, directly or indirectly, when setting salary modifications. The more significant question is the weight to be given to the criteria. By way of example, statutory financial limitations and the financial impact of the terms of an award on the public employer, while separate criteria, are among the items that must be considered under the public interest criterion. Continuity and stability of employment of unit employees is also a separate criterion but one that has been found to be interrelated with the public interest. Another factor that interrelates with the interests and welfare of the public is comparability, especially among several units of a single employer who have strong common interests such as in law enforcement. In this instance the record shows that the work performed in the various units is coordinated and integrated. . . . Where evidence of pattern or consistency between and among law enforcement units is alleged to exist, any such claim must be examined under criteria that concerns the public interest, internal comparability, continuity and stability of employment and factors ordinarily or traditionally considered in determining wages, hours and employment conditions. All these criteria have been found to be implicated by pattern of settlement.

The arbitrator then addressed the parties' arguments concerning internal comparability, focusing on the agreements the County had previously reached with the Sheriff's Superior Officers for 2005, 2006 and 2007, the Correction Officers and Corrections Superior Officers for 2004, 2005 and 2006, and the Prosecutor's Detectives and Investigators for 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. The arbitrator explained why he gave less weight to the cost of step increases, based on a comparison of the way the County had treated that issue in its negotiated agreements with all of the other law enforcement units.

Further focusing on the issue of comparability, the arbitrator concluded, "I am persuaded that the relationship to be given the most weight in this proceeding is the one between the county's corrections and sheriffs' officer rank and file units." He did not, however, explain why he reached this conclusion, although he had previously explained in general that "the record shows that the work performed in the various [County law enforcement] units is coordinated and integrated." The arbitrator did provide a detailed explanation as to how he calculated the wage increase he concluded was appropriate, and he provided a detailed explanation of the cost of that award.

After reciting again that he had "considered and applied the statutory criteria," the arbitrator concluded that his award was "consistent with the public interest by giving substantial weight to internal settlements and settlement patterns within the County's law enforcement units." He also concluded that "[t]he deviation from internal comparability sought by the County without reasonable justification has the potential to affect the continuity and stability of employment in the Sheriff unit." The arbitrator, however, gave no explanation as to how he reached that conclusion. He did not, for example, cite to any evidence as to the current or past rate of turnover in that unit.

Finally, the arbitrator briefly addressed other factors:

The financial terms of the award exceed what the County has proposed and are less than what the FOP has proposed. The costs can be borne without conflicting with the County's statutory spending limitations and without adverse financial impact on the governing body, its residents and taxpayers. The record clearly reflects that the County is on sound financial footing and its ability to fund an award of this level is evident from an examination of its official budget documents. Ratables have grown for many years while the tax rate itself has declined over the last 10 years. In addition, the County's budget was adopted significantly below the limitations proposed by the State Budget CAP. The cost of living and private sector data has been considered, but cannot be found to be controlling given the fact that the award is consistent with internal law enforcement settlements, all of which are at levels above the cost of living.

The County appealed this award to PERC. In rejecting the County's appeal, PERC found that the arbitrator had considered all of the statutory factors and had properly concluded that internal settlements with other law enforcement agencies was a very significant factor:

Interest arbitrators have traditionally found that internal settlements involving other uniformed employees are of special significance . . . [M]aintaining an established pattern of settlement promotes harmonious labor relations, provides uniformity of benefits, maintains high morale, and fosters consistency in negotiations. . . . In this case, the arbitrator determined that each party's proposal would alter the relationships among the County's various law enforcement units and undermine the need for reasonable consistency during the collective negotiations process absent a demonstrated need for deviation. . . . He specifically found that the County's law enforcement units shared strong common interests and performed coordinated and integrated work and that the relationship between the units of Corrections Officers and Sheriff's Officers and the County's negotiated agreement with that unit deserved the most weight and provided an appropriate model for structuring this award.

The agency also found that the arbitrator had considered all of the factors the County cited, such as private sector wage increases, CPI adjustments, local government wage increases in general, but reasonably concluded that those factors did not outweigh the importance of "an award consistent with internal law enforcement settlements, all of which are at levels above the cost of living." Further, "the employer has not justified why its own internal settlement pattern should not be maintained and why consideration of private sector wages should outweigh the impact of the employer's own settlements with other negotiations units." The agency also reasoned that "because the impact of an award on the continuity and stability of employment cannot be precisely measured, we will not disturb an arbitrator's award for concluding that reducing relative compensation for one of an employer's negotiations units would strain the ongoing relationship between those negotiations units."

After reviewing the record, which includes previous arbitration awards arising from impasses between the County and the sheriff's officers, we conclude that PERC's determination must be affirmed. Our review of PERC's decision is limited, Teaneck, supra, 353 N.J. Super. at 300, and the arbitrator's decision, while minimally adequate, is sufficient to meet the statutory requirements.

The County and its sheriff's officers have a long history of inability to agree on salary levels, even though the County has historically reached settlements with its other law enforcement units. Our review of the prior arbitration awards (which the County included in its appendix) reveals that the County has repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, insisted that its sheriff's officers do not perform work comparable to other law enforcement units. That continuing dispute seems to be at the heart of this arbitration as well. Resolution of that question was a fact and policy issue for the arbitrator and PERC to decide and we cannot conclude that the arbitrator's decision was not supported by substantial credible evidence.

Moreover, prior arbitration awards indicated that in the past, high turnover has been a problem for the Sheriff's Office, with sheriff's officers leaving to take positions with other law enforcement units. Hence, the current arbitrator's concern with stability of the work force seems well grounded even if he did not explain it in detail.*fn4

Finally, while the arbitrator focused much of his analysis on the issue of comparability and the pattern of settlements with other law enforcement units, he also considered the other statutory factors. Nothing in the record suggests that his conclusion was unsupported by the evidence or that remanding this case for further explanation would produce a different result. Perhaps one reason for the relatively brief discussion of the County's financial issues is that there really are no significant issues; unlike cases such as Essex County, supra, where Essex County faced severe economic constraints, in this case Somerset County is affluent, has consistently reduced its taxes, and otherwise has not documented any financial problems that would militate against the modest wage increase awarded here. Moreover, given that the County reached settlements with all of its other law enforcement units, the arbitrator's award of a similar wage package here is reasonable. On this factual record, we need not address the County's theoretical concern with out-of-control spiraling wage inflation.

We agree with PERC that the arbitrator properly calculated the total net economic changes for each year of the agreement. N.J.S.A. 34:13A-16d(2). To the extent not discussed here, the County's arguments are without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).

Affirmed.


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