ATLANTIC CITY — A Superior Court judge rejected the state’s plan to cut the size of the Fire Department on Friday, but a bill signed later in the day by Gov. Chris Christie could lead to staff reductions through early retirement.
Judge Julio Mendez’s ruling blocked state overseers from cutting 50 firefighters, a move Mendez said would compromise the safety of residents and visitors.
The bill Christie signed Friday could provide an alternative route to shedding staff. Senate Bill 3311 requires the state to offer an early-retirement incentive program to the city’s police officers, firefighters and first responders facing layoffs.
In signing the bill, Christie cited the success of the state’s stewardship of the city since November under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act. His statement cited the city’s “great strides to secure its finances and its future,” citing a drop of 11.4 percent in the city’s overall property-tax rate, the resolution of casino property-tax appeals and recent investments in the city.
Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, sponsors of the legislation, said the law will let the city “reduce the size of its police and fire departments without jeopardizing public safety.”
The incentive plan, which took effect with the signing of the bill, won’t affect existing contracts or collective bargaining rights, Sweeney and Mazzeo said in a joint statement.
Adding that maintaining public safety is critical, Sweeney said, “We don’t want to see any layoffs occur, but if a reduction in workers is required, early retirement should be offered first to the men and women who have served the city.”
Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, was pleased that Christie signed the bill.
“I’m proud to have worked with (Assembly) Speaker (Vincent) Prieto in a bipartisan manner to pass a plan that saves taxpayers money while giving our local police and firefighters the ability to retire early to avoid layoffs,” Brown said.
Meanwhile, Mayor Don Guardian said, “I’m glad that the Governor and the State continue to follow the plan that we gave them 10 months ago. As all the pieces that we originally proposed continue to come together, Atlantic City will continue to move further in the right direction.”
In court Friday, the state had sought to cut the size of the Fire Department to 148 as a cost-saving measure. The department currently has 198 members, according to court documents.
“Defendant’s proposal to reduce the size of the ACFD to 148 firefighters will cause irreparable harm in that it compromises the public safety of Atlantic City’s residents and visitors,” Mendez wrote in his ruling blocking the cuts.
Mendez said any reduction in force below 180 members compromises public safety, and any further reduction must come through attrition and retirements.
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“Today’s court ruling is a serious blow to the great progress Atlantic City has made over the past 10 months to get its financial house in order,” Tammori Petty, director of communications for the state Department of Community Affairs, said in a statement, prior to Christie’s having signed the early-retirement bill. “The City will now be forced to reexamine fire department salaries and benefits as well as other cost-cutting measures because it simply cannot afford, and does not need, 180 firefighters.”
Petty added if the lack of reduction in force results in an increase in taxes, “that burden will be caused solely by the actions of the firefighter’s union, not by the State, which was responsible for the first tax decrease for City residents in over a decade.”
Bill DiLorenzo, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 198, celebrated the judge’s ruling.
“More than 50 firefighters that would have been terminated under the state’s plan will continue to provide protection for the city,” DiLorenzo said. “Having the necessary resources to keep the city’s citizens and visitors safe makes our jobs safer as well.”
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Guardian said the ruling was a victory for the city’s residents.
“If the proposed cuts were forced upon us by the State of New Jersey, they would have left Atlantic City residents and businesses woefully unprotected,” Guardian said in a statement. “Judge Mendez rightfully saw through the draconian attempts by the State of New Jersey to unlawfully decimate our fire department.”