Atlantic City’s public safety unions brace for deep cuts

ATLANTIC CITY — State officials overseeing the city’s government have called on the police and fire departments to make major concessions in salary and potentially cut ranks, including up to 100 jobs in the city’s Fire Department.

The demands came last month, but the information became public only last week, when a copy of an email from the police union head was leaked.

City police and fire unions had gone to Trenton for their first official negotiation since the state takeover. The unions knew when the state took over they were likely facing significant changes.

But the level and depth of the cuts the state asked for was more than they anticipated, said police union President Matt Rogers.

During the meetings they received a laundry list of demands the state believes the departments need to take, Rogers said.

“We’re going to continue to negotiate in good faith,” said Rogers, president of Local 24. “It just seems like every time we go in there, they ask for a little bit more.”

For the Police Department, the state is looking for a pay cut across the board, a 15-step salary guide with smaller incremental raises and pay capped at $90,000. The state is also seeking increased health care contributions from members and asking officers to work 12-hour shifts.

In the email to union members Wednesday that was leaked, Rogers said the state also alluded to cutting the department from 277 to 250. That doesn’t include the 30 Class II officers paid for by a $1 million Casino Reinvestment Development Authority grant.

For the Fire Department, the demands are similar, but the staffing cuts are deeper, as many as 100 firefighters, said City Councilman George Tibbitt and Mayor Don Guardian.

A state Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman declined comment Friday, as did the city’s police and fire chiefs.

Guardian said Friday the state’s proposal was why the city fought so hard against a takeover.

“I feel that this is very unfair to both the police and firefighters,” he said.

Both unions are preparing a response, Guardian said, and are set to meet with the state again Jan. 9.

Some of the state’s demands were similar to a new contract the city and the unions had agreed on earlier this year. That contract was never signed because the state, in advance of its takeover, objected to it.

Tibbitt said both departments must continue to make cuts to help the city but added what the state is asking is unreasonable in some instances and could threaten public safety.

Data from State Police show Atlantic City saw a 17.8 percent increase in violent crime in 2015 from the previous year.

Police officers and firefighters make up two-thirds of the city’s salary cost, according to a May 6 city employee list. More than 400 public-safety workers earn more than $92,000 in base salary.

“The city hasn’t addressed the rich benefits and the salaries of the police and fire departments,” Gov. Chris Christie said in March, arguing for the takeover.

The unions say they’ve come to agreements twice in the past year that save money for taxpayers while maintaining what they believe is a necessary level of service.

The state took over in November after rejecting a last-ditch attempt by the city to avoid total state control. Christie tapped longtime ally and former state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa to run the turnaround.

Under the takeover, the state can sell city assets, hire and fire employees and veto the minutes of government meetings, among other powers.

Chiesa has been relatively quiet on his plans for the city, saying first he planned on meeting with all of the groups involved and focusing on tackling the city’s $500 million debt.

However, in the state’s November rejection of the city’s plan to avoid a takeover, it specifically notes police and fire staff reductions may be needed.

Cuts in the city’s police ranks don’t sit well with Elias Nammour, who worked the register Friday at Cedar Market on Baltic Avenue.

“That’s bad,” he said when he learned of the possible cuts. “Atlantic City needs more police in this area.”

Staff Writer Christian Hetrick contributed to this report.

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