ATLANTIC CITY — A Superior Court judge temporarily blocked the state Thursday from laying off 100 firefighters and implementing union contract changes.
Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez issued a restraining order against the state after International Association of Fire Fighters Local 198 re-filed a lawsuit Wednesday night to avoid layoffs, a new work schedule and deep cuts to benefits.
The state’s attorney said a restraining order wasn’t necessary. In a letter to Mendez Thursday, he said layoffs wouldn’t be implemented until September, when a federal grant covering 85 firefighters expires.
The order also temporarily blocks state officials from taking any unilateral actions against the union under the so-called takeover law.
That law ultimately gave former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa, who leads the state’s takeover, the authority to hire or fire workers and break union contracts, among other powers, to fix the city’s dire finances.
The state planned to implement changes to the union’s contract Feb. 19, including new salary guides, elimination of education and terminal leave pay, and establishment of a new work schedule under which all firefighters would work one 24-hour shift followed by two days off.
“It’s one more step in the right direction,” said the union’s attorney, Michael Bukosky.
But state officials said the judge’s decision doesn’t change the state’s timeline to implement the contract changes.
“We decided to delay implementing the proposed contract reforms until Feb. 19 as a good faith gesture to give the fire department more time to prepare,” said Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa Ryan.
“So, the TRO, in effect, is restraining us until Feb. 13 from implementing any changes, which we already stated we won’t start implementing until Feb. 19,” Ryan said.
The union lawsuit claims the state takeover law is unconstitutional since it impairs the contract rights of the union, among other reasons. It ultimately seeks a permanent injunction prohibiting the state from using its takeover powers against the firefighters.
A hearing was scheduled at Atlantic County Civil Court in Atlantic City. But the case has since been removed to federal court, Ryan said.
Bukosky, the union lawyer, claimed the state didn’t want anyone from Atlantic County involved in the matter.
“They treat Atlantic City like a play thing they can bounce around,” he said.
The union wanted to keep the case in state court. Bukosky said the contract clause of the state constitution is stronger than that of the federal constitution.
The union withdrew its initial lawsuit Wednesday after the state postponed contract changes for two weeks.
The city has a $100 million budget hole, is $500 million in total debt and has teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in recent years.
The state’s proposed Fire Department changes would save the city less than $8 million annually, according to the union’s suit.
The fire union argues that proposed cuts would make the city unsafe. And it says fire department costs make up just 7 percent of the city’s $240 million budget.
The potential 100 layoffs would cut nearly half of the department’s 225 firefighters.
The city has a population of about 39,000 people, but the population swells to about 165,000 from visitors and commuters, according to the lawsuit. There are many high-rise buildings.
“The 44 percent (staff) 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 suit said.
The union’s suit lists Chiesa, Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Charles Richman and Local Government Services Director Timothy Cunningham as defendants.
The suit also names Atlantic City as a defendant. But Mayor Don Guardian sided with the union’s case for a restraining order.
“I believe the current direction of the state with respect to the Fire Department may create an unacceptable safety risk,” Guardian said in certification submitted with the union’s suit.