LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The township was able to avoid layoffs this budget season, but it had to deplete its surplus and make a number of cutbacks to do so.

However, less than four months after the budget was adopted, the township issued 27 layoff notices in late August. On Thursday, the township announced it had saved five jobs in the construction department through employee concessions, reducing the total number of planned layoffs to 22. But the police force still stands to be reduced from 49 officers to 37, a layoff of nearly 25 percent.

Battered by a 2010 budget that saw cuts in state aid, a plunging property-tax base and declining business, the township, like other municipalities throughout the state, is not waiting until the next budgeting cycle to start making cuts. One of the lessons towns have learned from the last budget is that laying off employees in civil service municipalities can take as long as six months, diminishing the savings a layoff may have in a budget year. Sometimes, layoff appeals can even add to a municipality’s administrative costs.

Little Egg Harbor Township’s actions are representative of what New Jersey municipalities are facing when it comes to laying off employees under civil service guidelines, said William Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

“They’ve got to be looking at their budget. It’s inescapable,” Dressel  said. “Little Egg Harbor is just an example of how regulations are impeding towns’ abilities to manage their resources effectively.”

Township Administrator Garrett Loesch said the township needed to use $2.8 million in surplus and a 2.9 cent increase over last year’s tax levy just to prevent earlier layoffs or cuts to services.

But Mayor Ray Gormley said that Gov. Chris Christie’s 2 percent budget cap scheduled to take effect Jan. 1 and a 7 percent drop in the municipality’s ratable base would make it nearly impossible to replenish that fund enough to keep services, and employment levels, intact again next year.

“When you don’t have any surplus left, you either have to rebuild it or reduce your expenses,” Loesch said.

Eliminating the 22 jobs as of Oct. 5, combined with employee concessions, would save the township $800,000 in the final three months of the year, Loesch said. The remainder of the $2 million budget gap would be saved next year, he said.

Dressel said the League of Municipalities is urging state lawmakers to approve Christie’s “tool kit” for property-tax reform so that towns can become more efficient in budgeting. Currently, he said, laying off employees involves a convoluted process of applications, reviews, appeals and approvals that will drag on in municipalities governed by civil service rules.

Even once the layoffs are approved, municipalities must then deal with employees’ “bumping rights” and job titles that make it impossible to effectively move employees into the areas they are needed.

During an Aug. 16 hearing for a state legislative panel, the mayors of several municipalities pleaded with the Legislature to undertake civil service reform, or allow towns to withdraw from civil service.

Clifton Mayor and League President Jim Anzaldi told a state Senate Budget and Appropriations committee in August that civil service reform is essential.

Anzaldi gave his city of 78,000 residents as an example. A 4 percent tax-levy cap required furloughs, demotions, a hiring freeze and staff cuts through attrition in 2009, he said.

A layoff plan was submitted Dec. 17, 2008, and approved March 6, 2009. Several challenges were mounted to the layoffs, but the city prevailed, he said.

“Unfortunately, we experienced some troubling, unintended consequences. Bumping rights resulted in positions that were not targeted for reduction to be affected. Employees in the nontargeted positions lost their positions due to bumping rights.” Anzaldi said. “As a result, you had a less qualified employee in a position that required resources to retrain an employee. In addition, part-time employees, who had seniority, bumped full-time employees. We had three full-time positions that we had to offer to the part-time employee and displace the full-time employee.”

On top of that, Anzaldi said, the city could not transfer some employees to jobs in different departments because of civil service titles.

“The civil service system, at the very least, needs to be brought into the 21st century,” Anzaldi said.

Municipal officials are looking for the ability to respond faster to changes in the economy.

“You have to constantly be looking forward towards the next year,” Loesch said of the decision to lay off the employees in October rather than waiting until next year. “If we weren’t proactive, we wouldn’t have been able to replenish that $2.8 million.”

Township officials say the early layoffs may enable both sides — workers and employers — to reach concessions to save jobs, as they did in the construction department.

The 2 percent budget cap is proving to be a major issue for municipalities. Atlantic City officials say they need a waiver to exceed the cap by nearly $10 million or they will lay off 750 employees. But delays in the New Jersey Civil Service Commission’s hearing of the case mean the city will have even less time to act if it is denied its waiver. And layoffs, if they come, will have less of an effect on the budget the later they happen in the budget year.

“Now that we have an idea of where we need to be, we can work together to find common ground … something that can work for both the taxpayers and the employees,” said Gormley, adding that township officials will work tirelessly between now and Oct. 5. “We will do everything we can to find that common ground without cutting services that the residents of Little Egg Harbor deserve.”

In fact, Gormley recently announced that he has requested the 9th District legislators to help enact special legislation to allow the township to grant enhanced retirement incentives — including 100 percent payment of accumulated sick time and allowing the purchase of credible service credit — as a means to entice senior employees to retire, thus saving jobs.

The Township Committee also authorized a shared-services agreement with Barnegat Township for construction services during its regular meeting Aug. 26.

“I'm confident that we're going to save jobs,” police Chief Richard Buzby Jr. said Thursday. “As long as everyone stays positive and works together on a solution that can work for everyone.”

Contact Robert Spahr:

609-272-7283

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