Judge will allow Atlantic City firefighter layoffs — but not before Feb. 1

An Atlantic County judge has lifted his restriction on firefighter layoffs to get the Atlantic City Fire Department down to 180.
But the earliest that can happen is Feb. 1, Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez said, giving the department time to find another way.
“We’re grateful for the extension,” Atlantic City Fire Union President John Varallo said. “It helps us possibly be able to figure something out and work toward a solution.”
While a state timeline to reduce firefighters is “problematic,” it is allowed under the Recovery Act, Mendez said in his decision released Wednesday morning.
It is a change from his ruling in August that the state could reduce the department only through attrition and retirements. The state argued last week that it can’t afford to wait and needs to set a timeline.
“I am disappointed that the state has pushed forward this motion knowing that the state Senate, Assembly and governor all passed an early retirement bill for just this reason,” Mayor Don Guardian said. “We could have easily gotten to 180 fighters through these incentives.”
Mendez noted that, while early retirement incentives, or ERIs, are the law, the state has chosen not to offer them in this case.
“This court’s preference would be to reduce the size of the ACFD through attrition and retirements,” he said, echoing his previous ruling. “However… the court recognizes that the authority to establish a plan and a timeline to reduce the size of the department is with the (state-appointed) designee.”
While he lifted his layoffs ban, Mendez said those affected must be given 60 days’ notice and that cannot start until the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant is up. The federal grant — which currently pays the salaries of 72 firefighters — is expected to run out Nov. 30. That means, the earliest layoffs can happen in Feb. 1.
That extra time, Mendez wrote, is to alleviate some of the concerns about immediate reduction, and will give time to explore additional funding sources, allow more attrition and retirements to take place, give fair notice to those who may lose their jobs and give the department “time to safely plan for future separations.”
Varallo said work is being done behind the scenes to try to find a way to fund those positions. The state previously said they couldn’t apply for another SAFER grant.
The next SAFER grant goes into effect Feb. 1, Guardian noted, calling Mendez’s choice of that date “the only saving grace.”
The cost for the 15 firefighters without the grant is expected to be $1,758,000 next year. But, without the grant, the city still will be adding 57 firefighters to the payroll. The amount that would cost was not given.
The state Department of Community Affairs was disappointed in the ruling, spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said, calling 180 “an artificially and unnecessarily high number of firefighters.”
“While the decision to allow a modest reduction in firefighters on February 1, 2018, will provide some budget relief, the city will still be forced to make additional and significant reductions to fire salaries in order to afford paying for 180 firefighters,” she said. “The city will not visit this burden on the residents of Atlantic City who already pay far too much in taxes.”
The state wanted to have even less firefighters, but Mendez said to go below 180 would risk the safety of residents and visitors to the city.
Mendez also pointed out that attrition and retirements already trimmed the department by 30 this year, from 225 in January to the current 195.
“Since the state takeover began, I have been fighting for our residents to make sure our Fire Department continues to be at nationally accepted fire standards,” Guardian said.
“We’re going to continue to fight for what we believe is the right thing for the taxpayers, the visitors and, ultimately, the firefighters,” Varallo said.