ATLANTIC CITY — The legal battle between the city’s firefighters and state overseers is just the latest tussle over cuts to the Fire Department.
State officials looking to cut costs in the cash-strapped city have had firefighters in their crosshairs since 2014, when a Gov. Chris Christie-appointed committee called for a “right-sized” Atlantic City Fire Department.
And city officials once sought similar cuts now proposed by the state, including layoffs and an elimination of certain benefits.
But while the players and proposals have changed, the arguments have mostly stayed the same. The state says the city can’t afford the union’s contract after a fiscal downturn erased two-thirds of the city’s tax base. Firefighters contend the cuts would have a minor impact on the hundreds of millions of dollars of city debt while putting public safety at risk.
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Former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa, the state’s point man in the takeover, wants to cut 100 jobs from the Fire Department’s 225-person roster, a 44 percent reduction. Chiesa also wants to implement a new work schedule that would require firefighters to work longer hours, with 24-hour shifts. He also seeks to cut salaries and eliminate some benefits, including terminal leave.
The union, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 198, sued the state last week to avoid the layoffs and other unilateral contract changes, arguing the takeover law is unconstitutional.
The state’s proposals are reminiscent of a 2015 battle between the city and union that was resolved by an arbitrator. Like state officials now, the city wanted to cut salaries and end benefits such as terminal leave, education and longevity. In addition, the city had a layoff plan for 85 firefighters and initially said it would not renew a federal grant paying for them.
“The city cannot and will not be able to afford the extravagant benefits currently provided,” the city said in a written argument at the time.
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Ultimately, arbitrator Susan W. Osborn froze education and longevity, capped terminal leave for current workers and eliminated terminal leave and longevity for future hires. She denied the city’s request to cut salaries, which were frozen two years earlier. And the city later applied and received a federal SAFER grant to avoid the 85 layoffs.
“Thus, at 10 percent of the city’s budget, the Fire Department has already conceded its share of the city’s goal in reducing spending,” Osborn wrote in her decision.
The Fire Department has made significant cuts in recent years. Its $17 million budget is down $9 million since 2009, when it was $26 million.
But budgets don’t tell the whole story. In 2014, the Governor’s Advisory Commission on New Jersey Gaming, Sports and Entertainment homed in on personnel costs, which include health and pension costs. The committee’s so-called Hanson report said a right-sized city Fire Department would have 180 firefighters and a personnel cost of $24 million.
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At the time of the report, firefighter personnel costs totaled $34 million and the department had 261 firefighters.
The department now has 225 firefighters and personnel costs of $29 million, according to a summary of the city’s 2016 budget, although a federal grant pays for 85 firefighters.
“The contracts that were in existence in 2007 have only had marginal tinkering around the edges as far as their impact on employees,” said Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers University. “Those contract provisions were negotiated at a time the city had incredible property value. Those things don’t exist now.”
Today, the state seeks cuts deeper than the Hanson report suggested, proposing a staff of 125 firefighters. The union’s lawsuit claims the state’s proposals would save the city less than $8 million, which would bring personnel costs to about $21 million.
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State officials say a new work schedule will compensate for the loss of manpower by making firefighters work 121 days annually, up from the current average of 91.25 days. The proposed schedule would have firefighters work one 24-hour day followed by two days off, a change from two 10-hour days and two 14-hour nights, followed by four days off. There would be three platoons instead of four.
The union says such staff cuts will put public safety at risk. While the city has a residential population of just 39,000, the daily population swells to 165,000 and the city has many high-rise buildings.
“The 44 percent reduction could lead either to understaffed responses to high-rise fires or inadequate responses to other smaller fires while high-rise fires are being fought,” the union’s lawsuit states.
The union made a similar case in arbitration two years ago, saying the city was calling for cuts “creating drastic and irreversible harm to the Fire Department, the city’s residents and its visitors.”