ATLANTIC CITY — Negotiations to avoid the largest wave of Atlantic City government layoffs in recent history collapsed Monday, clearing the way for 93 city jobs to be cut Thursday.
An afternoon meeting at City Hall between members of the Langford administration and city union representatives ended with no progress, prompting the city to move forward with its plan to cut the jobs, which will include 40 police officers and 30 firefighters.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do now,” said Robert O’Brien, an attorney representing a coalition of local government unions.
The layoffs are an effort to plug a huge financial hole as the budget year approaches its end. City officials are facing an operating deficit of between $10 million and $15 million with only three months left in the year.
City officials have said they believe the layoffs, first proposed by Mayor Lorenzo Langford in July, were avoidable if the city received approval from the state’s Local Finance Board to exceed a state-mandated cap on annual property tax increases by $9.9 million. However, state officials rejected the request and countered it by suggesting the city cede its authority to control its finances to the state.
Those discussions are continuing, Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Community Affairs, said Monday. She declined to provide any other details. But the Langford administration says the continued discussions provide some hope that things could turn around.
“I don’t want to say negotiations are dead,” said Steven Glickman, the city’s chief labor counsel. “The negotiations all along have been contingent on the city getting a cap waiver. Without obtaining a cap waiver, neither side can make a commitment.”
The layoffs would be the second round of job cuts in city government this year. In late May and early June, city officials laid off 20 police officers, demoted 28 other police officials and cut 15 other jobs from a collection of city departments. The Policemen’s Benevolent Association went to Superior Court to stop the layoffs, but the request was denied. O’Brien said the unions are considering that action again.
After Monday’s meeting, O’Brien sent two letters, one to Jeffrey Chiesa, chief counsel to Gov. Chris Christie, and another to Thomas Neff, deputy commissioner of the DCA, asking that they help to at least postpone the layoffs for a week while the negotiations between the state and the city continue. The unions previously asked the city to delay the layoffs by a week, but the administration refused.
Before those letters went out, the unions attempted to engage city officials once more.
O’Brien said the labor groups approached the administration late last week with a letter noting that 53 city employees had retired since July, a savings of $1.7 million. That’s about $400,000 more than Thursday’s layoffs are projected to save. O’Brien’s letter also noted that the Police and Fire departments expect to end the year with a combined $400,000 in unused overtime.
But those savings can’t close the budget gap if the state does not approve a cap waiver.
“All of us anticipated having a decision on the waiver by now,” Glickman said.
Business Administrator Michael Scott said he is scheduled to meet with DCA officials today, and the mayor is scheduled to meet with Gov. Chris Christie on Monday, the earliest business day after he returns from a two-week trip to China. The Asian trip has been described as a “working vacation” designed to foster a relationship with government officials to ultimately stimulate Atlantic City tourism. The administration has refused to discuss details of the trip and has caught criticism from the unions for its purpose and its timing.
Scott said he expected City Council to have some sort of agreement with the state before it at its meeting Wednesday, Oct. 6. However, he said it was too early to tell what the agreement would entail.
Since the state rejected their initial application for a $9.9 million cap waiver, city officials countered with a verbal request of about half of that amount. Ryan said DCA officials were still not satisfied.
“We believe we can reduce the impact on property taxpayers even more,” Ryan said in a recent e-mail.
Even if an agreement between the city and the state can be reached, city officials would not fully commit to rehiring those scheduled to be laid off Thursday.
“The city would definitely revisit the issue,” Glickman said. “But sometimes the state puts certain conditions on their approval.”
O’Brien claimed Scott already told him that the state is advising the city to follow through with the layoffs as part of any final deal. O’Brien then bashed the governor and the mayor, saying “there’s not an ounce of conscience between them” and that they must be “immune to the feeling of human misery.”
Scott said O’Brien was “mistaken in his statements.”
“What I told him was that (the unions) waited too long to make their decision,” Scott said, referring to proposed concessions. The city has argued consistently that the unions never made any legitimate suggestions for compromise. The unions have insisted that it was the mayor’s office that did not negotiate in good faith and continued to push for layoffs while hiring others.
Assemblyman John Amodeo, R-Atlantic, said he also never heard that the layoffs were a condition of a deal with the state.
Amodeo said DCA officials told him they were hoping that the city would voluntarily sign on to their proposed authority over Atlantic City’s finances, but that there was no indication that 93 layoffs are necessary for any deal to be struck. He is also pushing state officials to delay the layoffs until negotiations with the city are complete.
Scott said he saw no alternative to following through with the layoffs before Thursday, but intended to devise new plans to bring the unemployed workers back as soon as possible.
“We’re hoping at some point we can reverse this,” he said. “I’m going to be working hard and praying hard.”
Contact Michael Clark:
Langford’s proposed layoffs
Police officers: 40
Health and Human Services: 9
Licensing and Inspections: 9
Public Works: 3
Projected savings: $1.3 million