ATLANTIC CITY — The state can proceed with plans to slash pay and benefits for city firefighters, Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez ruled Friday.
The judge’s ruling means the state is allowed to cut salaries, eliminate benefits, increase work hours and switch firefighters to a new health care plan, among other unilateral contract changes that take effect Monday.
The ruling came minutes before union leaders kicked off a campaign against public-safety cuts. Union leaders, Mayor Don Guardian and police Officer Joshlee Vadell, who was shot in the head in the line of duty, spoke out against the state’s plans.
The cuts amount to a 25 percent loss of compensation for firefighters, according to the lawsuit filed by the union, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 198.
The decision comes as the city’s police unions have filed a similar lawsuit seeking to block cuts to their contracts. A judge temporarily blocked the state from imposing contract cuts to the police unions until an April 10 hearing, said Matthew Rogers, president of Police Benevolent Association Local 24.
Mendez temporarily blocked the state from cutting the department’s staff nearly in half, from 225 firefighters to 125. The state wants to lay off 100 firefighters this fall when a federal grant paying for about 80 of them expires.
“We’re very pleased with the recognition of the authority that we have under the (state takeover law), and that we’re able to take the steps economically to protect the city,” said former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa, who is overseeing the city’s finances.
Michael Bukosky, the union’s attorney, said the firefighters may consider an appeal of the ruling. He said he’s confident the union will win a larger legal case against the state takeover of the city, which he argues impairs the union’s contract rights.
“If the Chiesa law firm goes ahead with the contract changes, they may simply be buying a very big bill,” Bukosky said. “If we win, all this money is to come back.”
The takeover law, called the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, gave the state sweeping power over the city’s finances, including authority to break union contracts.
Vadell stood before a packed City Council chambers and criticized the state takeover. He got a standing ovation.
“I’m only doing my duty, again, to protect the community of Atlantic City from out-of-town thugs taking away constitutional rights and putting a paid man in control of their government,” Vadell said.
Among the state’s proposals are a 30 percent cut in worker’s compensation for injured officers. Chiesa has exempted Vadell, who is still recovering from the September shooting, from the compensation cuts. But union officials and Vadell’s wife said the state never told them of Vadell’s exemption.
“They didn’t notify us of that. They sent a letter yesterday to the media about that, which goes to show who they’re speaking to,” Rogers said Friday. “They’re not speaking to us.”
The campaign against the cuts, already underway, includes billboards, direct mail, online advertising and grassroots activities such as handing out fliers on the Boardwalk, according to the New Jersey AFL-CIO.
In addition to 100 fewer firefighters, the state seeks to cut the Police Department’s staff from 274 to 250. The city had 331 police officers in 2011 and 272 firefighters in 2014.
The campaign, called “Don’t Gamble on Safety AC,” says the state’s cuts would result in unsafe staffing levels.
“One hundred percent of the high-risk occupancies, like a building greater than seven stories, will be unable to receive the necessary number of firefighters in any timeframe,” said IAFF Local 198 President Bill Dilorenzo.
Chiesa, who is billing taxpayers $400 per hour to lead a takeover of the city, dismissed the union lawsuits as no more than “money grabs” in an interview with WPG’s Harry Hurley.
In an interview with The Press of Atlantic City, Chiesa said he relied on experts to come up with the 125-person staff level. The state plans to alter the platoon structure and work schedule to make remaining firefighters work more hours.
“We’re happy to listen to the Fire Department and their leaders and experts to come to a (staff) number that makes sense and the judge will be comfortable with,” he said by phone.
Chiesa said he asked police Chief Henry White to identify 24 officers who could be cut. Instead of making a merit-based list, White chose the youngest officers, Chiesa said.
“That demonstrates to me that public safety is nowhere near their motivation here. Their motivation is simple. It’s to protect the highest-salaried individuals,” Chiesa said.
PBA Local 24 said on Twitter the chief doesn’t have appointment authority to make decisions regarding layoffs.
The cuts to police would save the city $20 million, while the reductions at the fire department would save $14 million, according to the state.
The city is hundreds of millions of dollars of debt. The city’s tax base has dropped from $20 billion to $6.5 billion in recent years amid a downturn in the city’s casino market.