ATLANTIC CITY — Early retirement buyouts for public-safety workers may be costly, but state Sen. Jim Whelan argues they’d save the city money in the long run.
As police and firefighters face layoffs, Whelan, D-Atlantic, tried to shift the conversation away from the cost of the buyouts to their potential savings, even as the city’s state overseers said the incentives are off the table.
Whelan, who co-sponsored the state takeover law, said the buyouts could save the city $60 million over five years if 100 senior police or firefighters took them. His analysis said the buyouts would cost $21.8 million over the same period.
“I don’t understand why you wouldn’t spend $20-plus million to get a return of $60 million,” Whelan said.
But the state Department of Community Affairs, which is running a state takeover of the city, disputed Whelan’s analysis, saying it didn’t consider the cost of backfilling positions.
While the state plans to lay off 19 police officers, for example, the city would need to buy out about 60 officers to see significant savings, requiring new hires, state officials said.
The state pegs the cost of buyouts at either a $23 million lump-sum payment or $47 million over time — “an astronomical amount that would benefit only 80 people,” DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said.
The state, however, didn’t give an alternate savings figure for the buyouts on Wednesday.
Whelan said his analysis did not consider backfilling positions but said that’s because the state’s plan to slash 100 firefighters and 19 police officers doesn’t either. The point of the buyouts was to avoid layoffs, he said.
“If we do the early retirements we’re going to backfill, but if we do layoffs we’re not going to backfill?” he said. “They can’t have it both ways.”
Ryan has said the city can’t afford the buyouts without a tax increase. The takeover law includes language saying a tax hike can’t be used to cover the incentive program.
The state appears to be the only source of funds for the buyouts, she said. Lawmakers had considered introducing a bill to let the state pay $23 million for them without interest accruing.
But an attorney for the state said in Superior Court last week the unions reneged on a promise to put their pay and benefits offer up for a vote. The unions also tried to get recent promotions for senior officers included in the buyouts to make their pensions bigger, which killed the deal for the buyouts, according to the state.
The unions say the state refused to meet with them to iron out details about the proposal, including questions they had about the promotions. And their lawyer argued last week that the state took the buyouts off the table to punish them for not accepting the state’s offer, calling the action punitive.
Whelan, reading the dispute play out in the news, said he wanted to “put it out there” that there are “real savings” to be had with buyouts.
“Sometimes sides get dug in and people lose sight of the bigger picture,” he said.