ATLANTIC CITY — The bad blood between the state and city police unions spilled out Monday in front of a Superior Court judge.
Both sides painted the other as disingenuous during the first hearing over proposed pay cuts and layoffs for officers. An attorney for the unions called the state’s proposals punitive, while the state dismissed the unions’ arguments as merely a show.
After more than two and a half hours of debate, Judge Julio Mendez said he would issue a written ruling in a few days on whether the cuts can take place while the unions’ case against the state takeover of the city advances.
Union attorney Mark Belland said the state was punishing the unions with harsher cuts for not accepting a prior proposal involving early retirement incentives. Belland said union leaders sought more details on the buyouts when the state took them off the table.
“The state pulled the rug out from underneath it, shut down, decided, ‘We’re going to teach you. We’re going to punish you. We’re taking ERI off the table,’” Belland said.
He cited a January letter outlining negotiations between the state and unions that showed the state had considered capping terminal-leave payments for retiring officers at $15,000. By March, the state wanted to eliminate the unused sick-time payments entirely.
Mendez seemed to take interest in the different memos, asking about them several times during the hearing.
But Ron Israel, who is representing state officials overseeing a takeover of the city’s finances, said the state’s change on terminal leave reflected further analysis of the city’s finances. He added the breakdown over the buyouts also forced the state to find savings elsewhere.
He said buyouts were taken off the table after union leaders sought to get senior officers promoted so their buyouts would be bigger. Union leaders also reneged on a promise to let union members vote on the state’s prior proposal, Israel said.
He said that changed talks of a deal that would have been better for rank-and-file union members.
“It’s of their own doing. They had a deal in their pocket, and they refused to take it to the rank and file for a vote,” Israel said. “The ERI was all that was there saving this money. It’s not punitive. It’s all that was left.”
The state wants to lay off 19 police officers, slash salaries and benefits and make officers work more hours, among other changes.
The cuts would save the cash-strapped city about $20 million, including a $10 million savings in terminal leave, according to the state.
The state took over the city in November to fix its troubled finances. The takeover law gave the state authority to hire or fire workers and break union contracts, among other powers.
The unions argue the staff cuts could harm public safety and the state takeover law is unconstitutional because it impairs their contract rights.
The state says the unions’ lawsuits are just about money and protecting salaries of the highest-paid officers.
The city’s firefighters have also sued the state to stop 100 layoffs to their department and cuts to their contract. Mendez allowed those pay and benefit cuts to proceed while that case advances but temporarily blocked the layoffs that were to take place this fall.