ATLANTIC CITY — The city’s public safety workers are in the crosshairs of state leaders pursuing a takeover, which would grant the state power to tear up their contracts.
Police officers and firefighters make up two-thirds of the city’s salary cost, according to a May 6 city employee list. There are 418 public safety workers who earn more than $92,000 in base salary.
“The city hasn’t addressed the rich benefits and the salaries of the police and fire departments,” Gov. Chris Christie said in March, arguing for the takeover.
As the city faces a state takeover which could include tearing up public union contracts, lo…
But police and fire union officials say there’s no need to tear up their contracts, as they have made concessions and are willing to make more.
Of the $25 million in budget savings since 2015, nearly $12 million has come from public safety — more than any other department — according to former emergency manager Kevin Lavin’s final report.
The 2014 Hanson Report said “right-sized” police and fire departments should include 285 police officers (there are now 282) and 180 firefighters (there are now 227, but the city only pays for 143 thanks to a federal grant).
“We feel like we’re being scapegoated,” said T.J. Moynihan, president of Atlantic City Police Benevolent Association Local 24 . “We’ve done everything we’ve been asked.”
Last year the city went to arbitration with International Association of Fire Fighters Local 198, city’s the firefighters union, over the same benefits the state has criticized the city for not reducing.
The city sought to cut salaries and eliminate terminal leave, longevity and education incentives in their entirety, arguing “the city cannot and will not be able to afford the extravagant benefits currently provided in the collective negotiations agreement,” according to the procedural background in the arbitration award.
An arbitrator froze education and longevity pay for current firefighters, and eliminated the longevity benefit for firefighters hired after January 2012. In addition, terminal leave payouts were capped at $15,000 for firefighters hired after January 2010.
In December, Mayor Don Guardian described the new fire contract as a “huge savings.”
“We’re looking for the same type of reductions in the police department,” Guardian said then.
Local 24’s contract expired in 2015 and negotiations are ongoing, but the union’s proposals mirror the fire union’s arbitration award. In addition to creating a new 15-step pay scale for new hires, it has offered to freeze longevity for current employees and eliminate it for those hired after January 2013. The proposal would cap terminal leave payouts at $15,000 for police officers hired after January 2010 and eliminate the payouts for those hired after January 2016.
Capping those payouts would bring the city major savings longterm, but would have little immediate impact. The city paid $6.6 million in terminal leave in 2015 to all public employees, including public safety, according to the Governor’s Office. The city owed $320,000 this year for retiring deputy fire and police chiefs. Christie has called such payouts “boat checks.”
“It doesn’t mean there’s not a concession there,” Moynihan said of the union proposal. “I’m still forfeiting future benefits.”
In what would be a more immediate savings, the police union is offering to no longer count sick hours toward overtime calculations, potentially saving the city $700,000 per year.
The politics over the proposed state takeover has largely focused on the provision allowing the state to tear up union contracts. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, who is seeking to protect collective bargaining rights, has single-handedly prevented the bill’s passage.
But state leaders pursuing the takeover say they would offer early-retirement incentives before using the more drastic power. Senate President Stephen Sweeney said in March the state could use buyouts to get as many as 50 police officers to retire, replacing them with officers at a starting salary.
Keith Bennett, state delegate of Local 24, said the buyouts could save the city $4.7 million if done today and $6.4 million in October, when another group of officers are eligible for the buyout.
“We would definitely be open to that,” he said.
Moynihan called the political focus on public safety workers disingenuous, describing it as a “smokescreen” to mask the true intentions of the potential five-year takeover.
The Senate takeover bill gives the state much more power besides tossing union contracts. The state could sell city assets, hire and fire employees and veto the minutes of government meetings, among other powers.