Retired NJ cops say they're owed money

Say the township is offering less than they are due and less than officials previously implied they would pay

By Hannan Adely
Herald News

WEST MILFORD, NJ — Two top-ranking police officers who retired last year are fighting the township over retirement pay.

Former Chief Paul Costello and former acting Capt. Michael Coscia said the township is offering them less than they are due and less than officials previously implied they would pay. Both Costello and Coscia said officials changed the way they calculated retirement payouts without warning, but township officials say they are complying with civil service rules.

"It's something that wasn't discussed prior to retirement, and nobody knew what was coming," said Coscia, 49, who retired Nov. 1.

The 25-year police veteran said he would have considered staying on longer at the Police Department if he had known the payout would change.

"Before I left, I discussed what my payout was, and everybody agreed," he said. "Two months later, they told me that's not what I'm getting."

Although Coscia's payout remains in dispute, he was given an initial check for retirement pay totaling $83,807. He declined to say how much he believed he was owed in total, due to ongoing negotiations.

Costello sought $241,000 based on his accrued sick, vacation, compensatory and personal time over his 36 years of service in the department, five of them as chief. A breakdown was outlined in a letter by Costello's lawyer, William Koy, to the township: $66,314 for unused vacation days; $56,023 for compensatory time; and $119,100 in accrued sick leave.

Township officials say that under contractual and civil service obligations, they have to pay only a total of $70,153.

In a letter to Koy, West Milford attorney Fred Semrau said that Costello forfeited nearly all his sick time because he did not provide a required 14-day notice of retirement. Costello retired on Aug. 1 with one day's notice, a decision he made quickly over concern about Governor Christie's proposal to cap sick leave payouts at $15,000 for public employees not under contract effective July 31.

Costello made the decision after consulting with township officials, and none indicated it would lead to pay problems, Koy wrote.

In a written response, Semrau said civil service rules capped compensatory and vacation time at an amount far less than Costello had claimed for compensation.

But Koy argued that in August, the administration gave Costello a summary of total accrued vacation, sick and comp time on which he based his sick time. Nine weeks later, the chief learned the payout would be less than a third of what he expected.

In a letter to township officials, Koy said his client was being treated unfairly.

"For what could be political reasons, the chief is being treated like a third-class citizen, instead of the leader he has been throughout the years," Koy stated.

Costello declined to comment on the "political reasons," but in his last year, the chief had clashed with Mayor Betttina Bieri over police staffing. He had argued that West Milford, as a matter of public safety, needed to hire officers to replace those who retired or left. Bieri, though, favored considering the savings that would come to the revenue-starved township by leaving the positions open and said she wanted a consultant's opinion to see how the department could be most cost-effective. She left most empty posts unfilled though 2010. A consultant's report eventually backed Costello's arguments for maintaining ranks at current levels.

Bieri said the payout dispute had nothing to do with disagreements between her and Costello.

"This is not about politics, personality or anything else," Bieri said. "It's about an interpretation of contractual obligations."

Both Costello and Coscia said they will consider suing the township if the matter is not resolved.

They were among six police officers who retired last year. West Milford, like other towns, was hit with a wave of police retirements spurred by the expectation that the governor would try to cut retirement payouts and benefits.

Payouts for the other four -- a lieutenant, captain, sergeant and patrol officer -- totaled $360,689.

Despite the large retirement payouts in 2010, the township will save money because overall salaries are declining with the retirement of veteran officials, Bieri said.

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