ATLANTIC CITY — Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez ruled Wednesday state overseers will be able to cut the city’s Fire Department by 15 members as a cost-saving measure.
However, the cuts are not allowed until after Feb. 1, according to the ruling.
“Upon careful consideration of the facts and legal arguments, the court is of the view that the plan and timeline for immediate reductions is problematic, but it’s not impermissible by the Recovery Act,” according to the 13-page ruling. “The court will not restrict the Designee from establishing a plan to reduce the size of the ACFD from the current level of 195 to 180.”
The ruling lifts the restriction that any reduction in force must occur through retirements or attrition. In September, the state filed a motion asking Mendez to reconsider his late-August ruling preventing the layoffs.
In his August ruling, Mendez said any reduction in force below 180 members would compromise public safety, and any further reduction would have to come through attrition and retirements.
Under Wednesday’s ruling, before the state makes cuts, officials must explore other funding to cover lost SAFER Grant funding, allow for additional attrition to take place and provide fair notice to those who may lose their jobs.
Atlantic City has enough money to fund the department through Nov. 30.
“We believe Judge Mendez made the correct decision the first time,” said John Varallo Jr., president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 198. “However, unlike the state, we are forced to follow the judge’s decisions. Over the next couple of months we will work hard to find a positive solution for the residents, visitors and my membership. Hopefully, the law firm that runs Atlantic City is willing to do the same.”
After years of financial mismanagement, Christie and the state Department of Community Affairs appointed former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa and his law firm in November 2016 to oversee operation of the city.
“We remain disappointed by the court’s insistence on requiring an artificially and unnecessarily high number of firefighters,” said Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the Community Affairs Department. “While the decision to allow a modest reduction in firefighters on Feb. 1, 2018, will provide some budget relief, the city will still be forced to make additional and significant reductions to fire salaries in order to afford paying for 180 firefighters.”
Mayor Don Guardian said he had hoped the state would offer an early retirement incentive. In August, Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill allowing the state to offer such an incentive to the city’s police officers, firefighters and first responders facing layoffs. But the state has said the offer would not be financially beneficial.
“I am disappointed that the state has pushed forward this motion knowing that the state Senate, Assembly and the governor all passed an early retirement bill for just this reason,” Guardian said. “We could have easily gotten to 180 fighters through these incentives.”
During the past couple of years, the size of the Fire Department has continued to drop, according to the ruling. In January, the department had 225 members. Currently there are 195. The department has also shrunk by 82 members since 2010.
“The plans to reduce the size of the ACFD have evolved from a request to approve a force of 125, resulting in a loss of 100 positions, to the current request to reduce the force to 180, resulting in a loss of 15 positions,” the ruling stated.