On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 393 N.J. Super. 213 (2007).
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
In this appeal the Court addresses the standard to be applied in evaluating a prosecutor's application under N.J.S.A. 2A:158-7 to increase appropriations for staff and facilities beyond the amounts appropriated by the county.
In the fall of 2005, the Cape May County Prosecutor (Prosecutor) submitted his 2006 budget request to the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders (County). When the County failed to approve all of the budgetary requests, the Prosecutor, with the approval of the State Attorney General, filed a Bigley application with the Law Division. (In In re Application of Bigley, 55 N.J. 53 (1969), this Court held that, through N.J.S.A. 2A:158-7, the Legislature conferred upon the Assignment Judge of a given county the "final and conclusive authority" to require a county board of chosen freeholders, on application by that county's prosecutor, to meet the needs of the prosecutor not provided for by the county in its appropriations.) The primary point of disagreement between the Prosecutor and the County was in the area of salary and wage increases.
In a published opinion, the trial judge first addressed the standard that should govern in evaluating the Prosecutor's request. In re Taylor, 393 N.J. Super. 425 (Law Div. 2006). After canvassing the law, the judge concluded that the prosecutor need only convince the court that the request for additional funds is "appropriate." Despite finding that the Prosecutor had not established that the increased salary levels were "essential," the judge found them "substantively reasonable." The judge rejected the Prosecutor's requests concerning salaries established by existing collective bargaining agreements that were agreed upon by employees, the County and the Prosecutor. Nevertheless, the judge took a different view with regard to those employees whose 2006 salaries had not been established through a collective negotiations process in which the Prosecutor had participated.
On appeal, the County argued that the trial judge should have applied a "reasonably necessary" standard rather than a "reasonably appropriate" standard. The Appellate Division disagreed and affirmed substantially for the reasons expressed by the trial judge. In re Taylor, 393 N.J. Super. 213 (App. Div. 2007). The Supreme Court granted the County's petition for certification. 192 N.J. 294 (2007).
HELD: N.J.S.A. 2A:158-7 authorizes the Assignment Judge to approve expenses of the prosecutor that exceed the funds appropriated by the county only when the expenses are "reasonably necessary."
1. The relevant statute provides as follows:
All necessary expenses incurred by the prosecutor for each county in the detection, arrest, indictment and conviction of offenders against the laws shall, upon being certified to by the prosecutor and approved, under his hand, by a judge of the Superior Court, be paid by the county treasurer whenever the same shall be approved by the board of chosen freeholders of such county. The amount or amounts to be expended shall not exceed the amount fixed by the board of chosen freeholders in its regular or emergency appropriation, unless such expenditure is specifically authorized by order of the assignment judge of the Superior Court for such county. [N.J.S.A. 2A:158-7 (emphasis added).]
In Bigley, this Court interpreted the statute and found that it required the trial court to "decide what ought to be rather than whether the action or inaction of the [county] was arbitrary or unreasonable." 55 N.J. at 57. (pp. 8-11)
2. If the language of the statute is clear, the Court interprets it as written. The word "necessary" is not defined in the statute. Webster's II New College Dictionary 748 (3rd ed. 2005) defines it as "absolutely required," "indispensable," and "needed to bring out a certain effect or result." Black's Law Dictionary 928 (5th ed. 1979) cautions that the word "necessary" "must be considered in the connection in which it is used, as it is a word susceptible of various meanings," and "may express mere convenience or that which is indispensable or an absolute physical necessity." The Court is satisfied that the Legislature did not intend to authorize the Assignment Judge to approve increased funding at the prosecutor's request based on mere convenience. (pp. 11-13)
3. The Legislature sought to strike a balance in N.J.S.A. 2A:158-7, between the fiscal responsibilities of the county and the funds needed by the prosecutor to carry out the statutory duties. The potential for conflict between the county in performing its budgetary duty and the prosecutor in enforcing the criminal laws is apparent. To resolve those conflicts, the Legislature designated the Assignment Judge to determine, in the event that the prosecutor seeks additional funds, whether the additional appropriations sought are necessary to meet the prosecutor's responsibilities as established by law. The term "necessary" in the statute denotes a higher standard than the "appropriate" standard invoked by the lower courts in the present case. The Court recognizes that the reference in Bigley, supra, that the Assignment Judge "must decide what ought to be rather than whether the action or inaction of the [county] was arbitrary or unreasonable," 55 N.J. at 57, may have engendered some confusion in determining the applicable standard. However, the phrase "what ought to be" must be considered in the context of the statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:158-7, which expressly authorizes the approval of amounts that are "necessary" for the prosecutor "in the detection, arrest, indictment and conviction of offenders." When viewed in that context, the statute requires application of a "reasonably necessary" standard. (pp. 13-15)
4. In the present case, the trial judge expressly found that the "Prosecutor has not established that an increase in salary levels is somehow 'essential,' or that his office will not be able to fulfill some specific function entrusted to it without an increase in salaries." Taylor, supra, 393 N.J. Super. at 448. Also, the trial judge expressly found that the additional increase for the assistant prosecutors beyond the amount previously agreed to in negotiations was not "essential." Id. at 457. The Court interprets those findings to mean that the salary increases, although appropriate, were not "reasonably necessary" for the Prosecutor to fulfill his statutory responsibilities. In light of those findings, it was error to approve the Prosecutor's request to increase the salaries for those positions. (pp. 15-16)
5. The trial judge's findings in respect of two specific positions, the First Assistant Prosecutor and the Chief of Detectives, however, are not as clear. The judge concluded that the Prosecutor's request to increase the salaries of those positions was "particularly compelling." However, because the judge made no express finding that the increases were "reasonably necessary" or "essential" to meet the Prosecutor's statutory requirements, the Court cannot determine whether the application of the "reasonably necessary" standard would result in the same conclusion. Consequently, the Court remands to the Assignment Judge to determine whether the salary requests for these positions is "reasonably necessary." (pp. 16-17)
6. Because the Court concludes that the trial judge found that the salary increases for the assistant prosecutors were not "reasonably necessary," it need not address the County's argument that it was error to approve the increases above the salary levels accepted by the assistant prosecutors in their collective bargaining agreements. For completeness, the Court adds the following in respect to those agreements. The Court concludes that when the prosecutor has not agreed to the salaries in the collective bargaining agreement and is able to garner sufficient evidence to establish that the requested increases are "reasonably necessary," then the Assignment Judge may order the funding of those requests. Nevertheless, when the county and the bargaining unit have an agreement on wages and salary, the prosecutor will have a very heavy burden to establish that additional sums are reasonably necessary for those employees. (pp. 17-18)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED for further proceedings.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Wallace, Jr.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, RIVERA-SOTO and HOENS join in JUSTICE WALLACE's opinion. ...