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State calling for major cuts to Atlantic City's public safety as negotiations begin

  • State
The state put major cuts to public safety on the table in its initial negotiations with the police and fire unions, Mayor Don Guardian has confirmed. Police and fire union representatives met separately with state representatives in Trenton this week, and were taken back  by the initial requests. Suggestions include nearly halving the Fire Department and taking police levels below pre-casino numbers. The proposed cuts would make nearly impossible to maintain six firehouses, and would bring police manpower below pre-casino numbers, Guardian said. Currently, there are about 278 police officers and 225 firefighters. The state suggests 250 for police and cutting 100 firefighting positions. In 1975, the year before casinos came, there were 293 police officers, Guardian pointed out. "That (250) is a very slim number to run Atlantic City," PBA President Matt Rogers told BreakingAC. "We're at about 278, and that's well below where we've been in quite some time. We struggle to keep that together only because we know the city is in such dire financial straits. We just dealt with it in hopes that, when it gets better, we'll be back to the manpower we need." The state also wants to increase firefighters from 40-hour workshifts to 56 hours, which would eventually mean less firefighters, along with the benefits that come with them. But, right now, it makes little financial sense, Guardian said, pointing out that 85 of those positions are paid for through a federal grant. "If you reduce it by 100, you would be turning down $11 million a year from the federal government and only saving (salaries and benefits for) 15 firefighters," he said. Cutting 100 positions "would be pretty disastrous," Guardian said. The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant, or SAFER, is awarded based on what is deemed needed for adequate response, the mayor pointed out. The standards include having 43 firefighters onscene for a high-occupancy building within 10 minutes, the mayor said. Residential response is supposed to be 4½ minutes. "It's very important to us that those standards are met," Guardian said, especially since is could effect the ISO rating for insurance. While the fire union president declined to comment, citing worry over the state's response to public release of the information, Local 198 did tweet a link to the International Association of Fire Fighters' Facebook page that
explaining the need for proper staffing levels. Meanwhile, PBA President Rogers responded Friday, after an email he sent to his members was made public first by local radio host Harry Hurley. Rogers wrote the email to his members in an attempt to update them since the holidays made it difficult to have a meeting with everyone before the next trip to Trenton in the second week of January, he said. "It was the first official 'negotiation' with the new group," Rogers wrote in the email obtained by BreakingAC. "As usual, the list of demands were hard to hear." That includes pay cuts across the board, with a 15-step salary guide that tops out at $90,000, and more out of pocket for health care, he wrote. There also was discussion of 12-hour days. The department had discussed 12-hour days as an option when they went to 10-hour days a few years ago. At that time, then-PBA President Paul Barbere said studies showed extending a shift that long in an urban area like Atlantic City is dangerous. Instead, the membership opted for three, 10-hour shifts, allowing an overlap in hours to put more manpower on the street during peak hours. That has still been difficult with the reduced force, Rogers said. Now, the state is suggesting trimming the force even more. Since the state has taken more control over the city, the possibility of a police takeover like the one that happened in Camden has been a worry for many. When Camden's department was dissolved to create a county department — which still covers only the city of Camden — there had been animosity between the mayor and police leadership, with the sides not negotiating. But Atlantic City's police union has been willing to work with the city and understands the financial issues, Guardian said. Before the takeover, every time the city went to the state with an agreement, they would ask for one more thing, and the police union was always amenable. From reduction in percentage increase for promotions, changes in the health plan, changing how sick time is determined or loss of terminal leave, "they (the police) have been supportive realizing the very, very difficult task the city is in financially," Guardian said. He is hopeful this is just the beginning of negotiations, and not a mandate. "I think if this is what they wanted, they would not be willing to negotiate," Guardian said. "They would take what they wanted and give us a date. I think they would prefer not to have that kind of legal fight." "A lot was thrown at us," Rogers said. "We told them we need to digest it. We hope to go back in there to have negotiations in good faith, clear of agenda or making a name for themselves."

Lynda Cohen

Lynda Cohen founded BreakingAC after working as a local newspaper reporter for more than two decades. She is an NJPA award-winner and was a Stories of Atlantic City fellow.

Sunday, May 19, 2024
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