ATLANTIC CITY — The city’s police unions sued Wednesday to block the state from unilaterally cutting their compensation and imposing longer shifts on officers.
The unions — Police Benevolent Association Local 24 and the city’s Superior Officers Association — filed a lawsuit in Atlantic County Superior Court the same day the state slashed salaries, altered work schedules and switched officers to a new health care plan, among other changes that took effect Wednesday.
A copy of the lawsuit was not immediately available, but PBA Local 24 President Matthew Rogers said it was similar to a case filed by the city’s firefighters, which sought to block the state’s cuts while a larger case against the state takeover of the city advances.
A Superior Court judge still hasn’t ruled on whether the state can proceed with cuts to the firefighters’ contract to save the cash-strapped city money.
“This is the last place we wanted to be, but the state has left us with no choice,” Rogers said. “They have bullied us into a corner, and it leaves us scratching our head as to what their actual end goal in Atlantic City actually is.”
Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, the agency overseeing the state takeover, didn’t immediately return a request for comment on the lawsuit.
But earlier Wednesday, Ryan said the state had no choice but to implement the contract changes.
“Further delays will make it impossible to achieve a balanced city budget without putting more of a tax burden on Atlantic City taxpayers,” she said. “It must be stated that for decades Atlantic City elected officials awarded lucrative salary and benefits packages to the city’s police and firefighters, and then didn’t make the hard choices to reduce those packages when the city began facing financial problems.”
Former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa, the city’s state financial overseer, imposed new salary guides for all officers; eliminated longevity, education and terminal leave benefits; adjusted schedules to make officers work more hours; shifted police to a new health care plan; and changed rules regarding overtime, sick leave, vacation time and workers compensation, among other contract changes.
The changes amount to cuts in compensation of up to 25 percent for some officers, Rogers said Tuesday. The new schedule would make patrol officers work 12-hour days, up from the current 10-hour shift, he said.
In addition, Rogers said the state eventually wants to reduce the Police Department’s staff from 274 to 250.
The cuts would save the city about $20 million, Ryan said. The savings would come from a $10 million decrease in the number of officers and salary reductions and another $10 million from eliminating terminal leave, she said.
The city’s total personnel cost for police was $48.2 million in 2016. This was nearly 20 percent of the city’s $242 million budget that year. The total police personnel cost was $54.7 million in 2014, according to the so-called Hanson Report on Atlantic City.
The state’s plan for police was revealed in letters sent to officers and city officials by Chiesa. The letters were dated Monday but weren’t received by the city until Tuesday, when state offices were closed due to a winter storm.
The state and unions blamed each other in the breakdown in negotiations.
Ryan said the state has accommodated requests by police to delay implementing its plan, most recently delaying the cuts untill Wednesday.
“We appeared to be reaching a reasonable and fair agreement when police union leaders and their attorneys on Monday effectively ended the progress when they reneged on a promise to put the state’s offer to an up-or-down vote of union members,” Ryan said.
Atlantic City police Capt. Frank Brennan, president of the city’s SOA, said the unions still had questions about the state’s offer and sought to clarify those details by requesting another meeting with the state. But he said the state refused to have a face-to-face meeting or a conference call and didn’t answer written correspondence.
“We can’t bring anything up for a vote until we get what we’re voting on clarified,” Brennan said. “We don’t want to go this route. We want to try to work this out as best we can, and we are still willing to do so.”
The city is hundreds of millions of dollars of debt and its tax base has dropped from $20 billion to $6.5 billion in recent years amid a downturn in the resort’s casino market.
State officials took over the city’s finances in November through the Municipal Stabilization & Recovery Act, which gave the state authority to amend or break union contracts, among other powers. The constitutionality of the takeover law has been challenged by the firefighters union.