Supporters of late Moorestown Police Ptlm. Craig Berner’s family want the township to extend health benefits the family has been receiving since his untimely death, but township officials say legally they can’t.
Now friends of Berner's family are using an online petition to try and persuade the township to make an exception to the police contract and continue providing benefits to the family beyond the end of the month. Nearly 500 people had signed the petition as of Thursday afternoon.
After Berner was killed in an off-duty motorcycle accident in July, the township extended medical coverage for his family—his wife, Carrie, and two children—until the end of September, said township manager Scott Carew.
Carew said based on consultations with the township’s labor attorney, officials “felt that was the best we could do, with legal discretion.”
The terms of the township’s current contract with the police labor union state that medical insurance coverage is provided to an officer’s family post-retirement—officers are eligible for retirement after 25 years of service—or for any officer killed in the line of duty.
Berner, who served 26-plus years with the Moorestown Police Department, was eligible to retire, but had chosen to wait.
His sister-in-law, MaryJean Clark, said Berner had planned to retire in the near future, but stayed on past the 25 years because, “He was still young and could still serve the community.”
Clark started the petition to persuade the township to make an exception to the contract and continue providing benefits to Berner’s family beyond the end of the month.
Carrie, Berner’s wife, is an “at-home mom,” and lost roughly 70 percent of the household income when her husband died, Clark said. The family received a fairly sizable one-time payment through Berner’s life insurance policy, and will continue to receive 50 percent of his base salary through the pension plan until the family’s youngest child—now 12—turns 18. But that’s not enough to get them through the rest of their lives, Clark stressed, particularly when COBRA coverage would cost the family almost $1,700 a month.
“Moorestown Township needs to do the right thing by Craig Berner, who always did the right thing,” she added.
According to Carew however, it’s not that simple.
“We would love to be able to help the family,” he said. “There’s just state and local law that dictates how we spend taxpayer money.”
Article IX (Health and Welfare) of the police contract, which was provided to Patch by Carew, states that, under the section titled “Coverage After Retirement,” health benefits are extended to the family of an “eligible retiring employee.” It further reads: “This coverage and the rules concerning the eligibility shall be only as allowed under N.J.S.A. 40A: 10-23.”
The abovementioned state statute reads, “The employer may … assume the entire cost or a portion of the cost of such coverage and pay all or a portion of the premiums for employees … who have retired after 25 years or more of service …”
“It is black and white,” said Carew. “(Berner) would have had to have retired for us to legally do this … I can’t imagine the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) would be OK with us using our discretion to open the contract.”
Carew said he’d be willing to negotiate the terms of the contract with the FOP to address the retired/killed in the line of duty clause. The contract expires at the end of this year.
“We would be willing to sit down with the bargaining unit to negotiate that benefit if that’s a direction they chose to go,” he said.
Mayor Stacey Jordan was sympathetic to Berner's family and referred to the matter as a "sad situation all the way around."
However, she believes there is little township council can do at this point.
"I feel for the family, but this is a contractual issue and it has to go through the proper channels," she said.
Clark claimed the township could make an exception for the family, in the form of a resolution, and said she had consulted with attorneys who advised as such.
Carew said he was not aware of any such exception, and expressed doubt that the township could do so without setting a potentially troublesome precedent.
An attorney with public employment benefits experience, who spoke with Patch on the condition of anonymity because he is not privy to all the details of the case, said he believed the township could agree to an exception to the contract, but questioned whether it would be good public policy given the purpose of a collective bargaining agreement.
The FOP plans to file a grievance on Berner’s behalf, at the family’s request, “to explore continuing medical benefits coverage under the current contract between the Township of Moorestown and the members of the Moorestown Police Department,” FOP president Ptlm. Daniel Pascal wrote in a statement to Patch. “Upon completion of this process, we will respectfully accept the final decision in this matter.”