VINELAND — Twenty-one Vineland police officers could face layoffs due to proposed cuts of Urban Enterprise Zone funds used to pay them.
City officials hope to avoid the layoffs through negotiations with the police unions and other budget changes. Mayor Bob Romano met with union leaders this week.
“That’s the absolute last resort,” Romano, a retired Vineland police officer, said of the layoffs. “If there’s any way possible through concessions and rearranging the budget, we’ll do it that way.” The city has 155 police officers, 120 of whom are patrolmen.
At the same time, city officials hope to gradually change the 4-year-old policy of using large amounts of UEZ money — more than $2 million in 2009 — to fund police officers, regardless of whether Gov. Chris Christie’s plan passes the state Legislature.
Romano also is holding out hope that the Legislature will reject Christie’s proposal to eliminate the UEZ funds kept by the municipalities that host them. He said he has heard there is not enough support in the Democrat-controlled Senate to pass Christie’s plan.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, plans to hold hearings on the topic next month in his role as chairman of the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee. He said he does not think Christie understands the huge effect a UEZ can have on its host community.
As an example, Van Drew pointed to the prospect of a branch campus of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey opening up at the vacant site of Newcomb Hospital on Chestnut Avenue in Vineland.
“That would be, obviously, a tremendous economic benefit for our area, and that’s done with UEZ money,” Van Drew said.
Christie has proposed cutting the share a host community keeps of sales taxes generated in the zones, a rule dictated by the law creating them. Vineland currently keeps 2 percent of sales tax revenue for its zone, which covers most of the downtown area — about $6 million last year. That number would drop to 1 percent in 2013 under current law.
UEZ funding is typically used for economic development projects, often through revolving loan pools, but as much as 35 percent can be used for city services affecting those areas.
UEZs work in 15-year cycles. Vineland’s was created in 1988 and renewed in 2003. For the first five years, a city keeps 3 percent of the sales tax revenue. The next five years, it keeps 2 percent, and for the final five years, it keeps 1 percent. Then the UEZ is either renewed or ceases to exist.
Through 2005, Vineland typically used only a small portion of its UEZ funding for city services. In 2005, that number was less than $300,000, Vineland Redevelopment Director Sandy Forosisky said.
But in 2006, officials used $1,269,109 of UEZ money for city services and matched it with a mandatory 20 percent addition, Romano and Forosisky said. The next year, that figure remained about $1.3 million, then increased to $1.9 million in June 2008, Forosisky said.
Romano took office the following month, and the figure increased slightly to $2,053,058 in his first budget cycle.
Forosisky, the city official who deals most with UEZ funding, said city leaders began directing that more UEZ funds be used in 2006.
She and Romano say they recognize the need to decrease their reliance on UEZ funding, even if they get to keep the money.
“You have to wean yourself off,” Forosisky said.
Should Christie’s proposal go through and if no other concessions can be found, the police officers whose jobs would be in danger would be the 21 most recently hired patrolmen, city police Chief Tim Codispoti said. In most cases, those are the youngest officers on the force.
Codispoti said any cuts would hamper the department’s ability to patrol the city and have a significant and obvious physical presence. He said he does not like the threat of layoffs hanging over their heads. He experienced it personally in 1990, when some police officers were informed they would be laid off, only to have layoffs averted in the end.
“I don’t like that they’re coming to work every day worrying if they’re going to get a pink slip,” Codispoti said. “I want them to be able to focus on their job.”
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