VINELAND - Vineland police officers and City Council members clashed verbally Tuesday night after police learned city officials were preparing the groundwork for layoffs.
City Administrator Denise Monaco informed union leaders of the potential for job cuts in an April 9 memo.
"Even with pre-layoff actions, the imposition of layoffs may not be able to be avoided," Monaco wrote in the memo.
Officer Bill Mazzola, president of Policemen's Benevolent Association Local 266, criticized city leaders for not searching for alternatives to laying off 21 police officers currently funded by Urban Enterprise Zone funding that Gov. Chris Christie has proposed eliminating. Mazzola said city officials need to become more fiscally responsible instead of cutting necessary positions. He called layoffs "the easy way out."
"Don't endanger our citizens and jeopardize public safety," Mazzola told council members Tuesday.
City Council President Pete Coccaro objected sharply to Mazzola's criticism. Coccaro said city union leaders came up with few cost-saving ideas when asked to do so during a meeting with city officials a few months ago, the most notable of which was a lucrative buyout offer for employees about to retire. He challenged Mazzola to come up with ideas now, slamming his gavel for emphasis at one point, and said he wanted to work together to find common solutions not dissolve into acrimony.
"We have a lot of taxpayers that we have to worry about," said Coccaro, a retired police officer. "I do not cast my vote against the police officers in this town. You're wrong. I cast my vote because I have other taxpayers to worry about."
Mazzola, Officer Steve Buglio and Lt. Adam Austino laid out several ways - during the meeting and outside - they feel the city could save money, including: cutting trash pickup from twice weekly to once weekly, which council opposed last year; closing City Hall one day per week; and revaluing the entire tax base in Vineland.
Austino said the city probably lost out on about one-third of the tax revenue it could collect because of outdated assessments. City leaders have not done a citywide revaluation of properties in decades, and the city's equalization rate - the tax figure used to translate outdated assessments into appropriate modern values - is about 50 percent, one of the lowest in the county. That means some people are taxed far more than they should be, while others are taxed far less.
"They haven't done that because it's a political time bomb," Austino said outside the council meeting. "It's an unfair system, and it's costing the city money."
Councilman Doug Albrecht sharply objected to cutting trash pickup to once a week, much as he did in September when he said, "I figure for the $6,000 I pay (in taxes), I'm entitled to twice-weekly trash pickup." During Tuesday's meeting, Albrecht said cutting to one-day trash pickup would save just $300,000.
Mazzola said the city should take into account the fact that PBA 266 was the first city union to grant concessions, such as the cut in the wage scale for new hires.
The funding problem stems from the potential UEZ cuts but also city officials' choice to rely on UEZ funding for 21 police officers. In 2005, city officials used less than $300,000 of their UEZ money to fund police, Vineland Redevelopment Director Sandy Forosisky said last month. In 2006, that figure rose to $1,269,109. In 2008, it jumped again to about $1.9 million, Forosisky said. It has hovered there ever since, and Vineland Mayor Bob Romano said last month he wants to change the policy of funding so much of the Police Department with UEZ money.
"We've actually backed ourselves into a corner, and it's time to pay the piper," Councilman Ed Conrow said.
Should city officials go ahead and initiate layoffs of 21 officers, it would affect the newest hires at the department, largely the youngest officers.
"I'm here to do a job," said Officer Ryan Madden, a two-year police veteran who could be in line to lose his job. "I love my job. The more we look at what's going on this city, we see more burglaries, more shootings. The economy's bad."
"As the economy gets worse and the weather gets warm, crime goes up," added Brian Armstrong, who has spent one year on the force.
When asked about possibly getting laid off, Madden, Armstrong and fellow new officers William Newman and Matthew Laielli focused on how the layoffs would negatively affect the department rather than on their own financial security. They said the department is handling an increasingly heavy burden, such as on one recent weekend night when the huge amount of crime and mischief delayed police responses.
"Every car on the road was tied up," Laielli said.
"Every day," Madden said, "seems like it gets busier and busier."
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