ATLANTIC CITY — The state can cut city firefighters’ pay and benefits while a legal case against a state takeover of the city advances, an appellate panel ruled Thursday.

In a written order, Appellate Division Judge Carmen Messano said a trial judge correctly ruled state-imposed cuts in compensation are not “irreparable harm” because money for lost wages or benefits would be available if the union succeeds in its case.

The decision means the state can proceed to slash salaries, reduce benefits and make firefighters work more hours. The contract changes can begin as early as April 14.

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The trial judge, Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez, allowed the contract cuts to proceed in March but temporarily blocked the state from imposing 100 layoffs to the department this fall. The union tried to appeal Mendez’s order days later to keep a stay in place against the compensation cuts. But Thursday the judge denied the firefighter union’s motions to block the cuts from going forward.

“These changes will result in approximately $14 million in cost savings this year alone and in no way will compromise public safety for residents and visitors to the city,” said Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the Department of Community Affairs.

The cuts amount to a 25 percent loss in compensation for the firefighters, according to the lawsuit filed by the union, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 198.

Union President Bill Dilorenzo said the ruling was expected but disappointing.

“We thought we might get more consideration because we’re not a business entity. We’re people, and the money effect will have much more of an effect on personal and family life,” he said.

The contract changes include reduced salaries, an elimination of terminal leave, higher health care co-pays and a new schedule that makes firefighters work 24-hour shifts.

The state took over the city’s finances in November through the Municipal Stabilization & Recovery Act. That law gave the state authority to hire or fire workers and break union contracts, among other powers.

The union argues it has already made significant reductions in its budget and the takeover law is unconstitutional because it impairs the union’s contract rights.

In addition to the contract cuts, the state seeks to slash the Fire Department’s staff nearly in half, from 225 to 125. The state plans to make up manpower hours by adjusting the work schedule and platoon structure to have one platoon of eight fire companies on duty at all times.

But in his March 17 ruling, Mendez said the union will be able to establish that the “dramatic reduction” to 125 firefighters will likely harm public safety.

He said a staff reduction to 180, though, “would be more than reasonable.”

Contact: 609-272-7215 CHetrick@pressofac.com Twitter @_Hetrick

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