Hiring a public safety director in lieu of chiefs was intended to save Brigantine taxpayers money, but a succession of arbitration and court decisions, combined with an impending special election, may prove even costlier.
As of March 1, the city's four fire captains - one of whom rejected a promotion to chief last year - will each receive 12 percent more money per hour while serving as the officer in charge. City Manager Jennifer Blumenthal said the pay increase, the result of a labor grievance, means an extra $52,000 per year split among them - more than the cost of promoting one captain to chief.
Meanwhile, acting police Chief Ray Cox said his attorney filed a motion about a week ago to force the city to pay court-ordered differential pay for the period in which he was improperly removed from his post. Cox said he's owed about $10,000 so far, but a jury trial could lead to even larger damages and legal fees. Although Cox's case is unlikely to lead to such a large amount, former Atlantic City police Chief John Mooney was recently awarded $2.9 million in addition to $900,000 in legal fees.
"The city's playing a very dangerous game right now," said Cox, who was stripped of his title last May and reinstated in November. "There comes a point in time you have to say, 'We made a mistake; let's put it right, put it behind us and move on.'"
Blumenthal said the city was unaware of the problem until this week and is working to reconcile the issue. Cox said his attorney is asking the judge to order a $1,000-per-day penalty against the city until it complies.
Vince Sera, president of the Beach Patrol Association, said then-acting Chief Kip Emig was similarly stripped of his title last year - Emig is currently one of two assistant chiefs - but so far has chosen not to pursue legal action.
A vote by City Council on Wednesday not to approve an ordinance eliminating the public safety director position, which has been held by Dan Howard since June, means the issue will go to voters in a special election this spring. The exact cost remains unclear, but recent special elections have cost other municipalities more than $25,000.
Howard was hired at an annual salary of $70,000, but that could increase to a maximum of $105,000 if the position is made permanent. However, every elected official has said they prefer chiefs over that possibility.
Calculations released by the city in December put the cost of hiring only chiefs of fire and police with the accompanying promotions through the ranks at $98,592. If two entry-level positions were added, that cost rose to $245,418. Having chiefs, entry-level posts and a director would cost between $315,000 and $350,000.
All three departments are currently engaged in labor contract negotiations, some of which have continued for nearly two years as the city seeks to block pay increases and eliminate certain benefits, such as longevity pay. The Democratic majority, which seized control of City Council after the 2012 election, ran on a platform of curbing labor costs, which account for about two-thirds of Brigantine's budget.
Councilman Frank Kern, a Democrat, said the elected officials have to weigh the short-term cost of a public safety director versus the long-term cost of appointing people to lead the departments who aren't willing to work with Blumenthal to cut costs.
There are qualified people in the departments who could do that, he said, but they aren't necessarily the ones with the most seniority. And, as evidenced by the fire department, those individuals may not want to take the posts over senior officers.
"I don't have an answer to how (Blumenthal) will choose to function if she's unable to find someone willing to work with her to make the changes she feels are required," Kern said. "I'm not sure what she will do."
Mayor Phil Guenther, a Republican who opposed the director's appointment, said he doesn't see any cost savings with the current arrangement.
"The direction we seem to be going is to have both chiefs and a public safety director, which makes no sense when you're downsizing the departments," he said.
Anne Phillips, of the Brigantine Taxpayers Association, said the "waters have been muddied" since the director was appointed, but the financial realities remain the same.
"We're going to have to work through this, but the objective is still to get the costs down as low as possible," she said.
Cox and Sera said claims that their departments aren't willing to cooperate with city officials are false. Fire officials did not respond to requests for comment.
For his part, Cox said he welcomed the hiring of Class II officers, two of whom were approved unanimously by Council at Wednesday's meeting. Sera said there are safety concerns with part-time lifeguards, but the patrol has made a good-faith effort to comply with everything the city has asked of them.
"I can only speak for the Police Department, but we're aware of the budget constraints and we're making moves to reduce our costs," Cox said. "But you can't get it all at once, either."
Guenther said eliminating or delaying the appointment of chiefs won't save money, particularly if those actions lead to litigation. Savings can only be realized through renegotiated contracts and restructuring within the departments, he said.
Councilman Rick DeLucry, a Democrat, said contractual pay scales were inflated under the leadership of prior administrations that included Guenther.
"This is the legacy of give-away contracts," he said. "Every single opportunity for substantial additional pay for any change of rank or out-of-title work was contractually directed under old, expired contracts, and of course they carried over for the new contract."
Like Kern, DeLucry said the city has to weigh the temporary strain of increased costs against the risk of locking in unsustainable compensation for the future.
"You can't just name chiefs to name chiefs and say we saved a couple dollars," he said. "You end up costing (taxpayers) in other ways."
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