LINDEN — It looks like the city may have to face the second half of the year without 22 police officers and 32 firemen in order to forestall a financial disaster in 2013.
Linden is expected to file a layoff and demotion notice with the state next week, said Mayor Rich Gerbounka. The public safety layoffs would slash the police department by 19 percent and fire department by 29 percent.
Unless, of course, the police and fire unions agree to make concessions on the close to 3.95 percent raise they were supposed to get this year. But even then it will not be enough to make up the $5.2 million the city has to slash in order to get below the 2 percent state-mandated cap.
As of late Monday, city officials who did not want their names used, said the FMBA 234 union had come to the negotiating table to try and mitigate the proposed layoffs.
There also were indications that firefighters were considering paying a percentage of their health benefits cost to avoid the layoffs. Until now this financial burden was being carried by the city. However, sources said nothing was written in stone and it was unknown if the police union was willing to do the same.
The mayor said last week that medical benefits for employees with families cost the city $27,441 annually, per family.
The city council introduced ordinances last week restructuring the police and fire departments. The restructuring allows for demotions to fill in positions that are left open as a result of layoffs.
The entire city employee base will feel the effect of the financial crunch, even if police and fire unions agree not to take the raise they were expecting because that would only slash $1 million from the $5.2 million needed to bring the budget under the cap.
The cap, which is a safeguard measure that prevents municipalities from raising taxes too high, was instituted by Gov. Chris Christie three years ago.
According to Personnel and Finance Chairman Peter Brown, every city employee will have to take a furlough day once a week starting July 1 through the end of the year.
At last week’s meeting, council members were stony in the face of the financial storm the city is facing, with Brown taking the lead in explaining how things came to this point.
“Since 2005, the budget has utilized the significant reserves it has accumulated in order to offset major tax increases in prior year’s budgets, yet continued all the services we have had. However, this year the revenues have drastically decreased,” he said, reading from a prepared statement. Still, he did feel this emergency could have been avoided.
The 3rd Ward councilman explained in an interview late last week that the city negotiated generous contracts when the city was dipping into its reserves and draining the fund year after year to offset the impact on taxpayers. But, he also admitted that a series of things all came together at once, a perfect storm of financial events that culminated this year.
Brown explained that the steady decline in revenue, coupled with a declining tax base, added to the financial firestorm. The dilemma, the councilman said, can be traced back to 2007 when the city had $40 million in surplus or savings and began to make some unwise financial decisions. After dipping into surplus the last six years, there was nothing left to fall back on this year.
“We had no business using surplus every year to reduce the budget. Two years ago I warned the council that we were going to find ourselves in a deep hole financially and here we are,” the 3rd Ward councilman said, adding that he was trying to be as “open and honest as I can be.”
“We’re in a situation here where we have to introduce a budget. If we don’t get a budget introduced where are we going to get the revenue to ensure everyone who keeps the city running is paid?” Brown said, adding that “this is a serious situation.”
One of the first impacts on services residents will feel will begin April 1 when trash pickups, not garbage removal, stops. Regular garbage service will continue as normal but “trash” that residents put to the curb that the city has disposed of at no cost to residents will no longer be picked up.
Also, one firehouse will have to be closed because of the layoffs, the mayor said.
At the council meeting last week, several members of the council brought up the financial dilemma during the comments portion of the meeting while others did not. 4th Ward Councilman Derek Armstead quietly explained his stance on the issue, but was blunt about how the police and fire unions could help.
“We just don’t have the money. We’re looking for some concessions, some givebacks,” he said, referring directly to the raises these union members were supposed to get, according to their five-year contract.
According to Brown, the police and fire union contracts were negotiated prior to the 2 percent state-mandated cap was put in place and these unions did not receive a raise the first two years of the contract. This year, however, is the third year of the contract, which provides the 3.95 percent increase.
Union leaders expressed anger and frustration over the fact they negotiated these contracts in good faith and now are expected to give up what they are entitled to receive. Armstead, though, felt placing blame would not solve the situation.
“We can do two things here: butt heads or go in a back room and make it work,” he said at the public meeting.
Councilman Adam Kuczynski, representing the 10th Ward, said he believed the council would find a way through the problem, but noted that it would take the cooperation of everyone. Union representatives and others attending the meeting felt this was unfair.
Retired firefighter George Kostry stepped to the microphone to question not only the speed at which the council was initiating public safety layoffs, but also the effect that would have on the city.
“Seems like you are rushing to get this done,” he said, adding that losing this many members of the police and fire was “not safe for residents.”
“Just a few months ago you put on new police and firefighters. They left jobs to come here. If you go down to these numbers, what district will be without protection?” he asked.
“I was with the fire department and know what’s out there. Things turn bad fast out there,” Kostry warned.
Bill Hosko, a fireman with the city for 18 years and FMBA local 234 president, had plenty to say to council members about the layoffs and request for “givebacks” of raises.
“This has been thrown together at the last minute. You can’t keep winging numbers and coming back to us and threatening to take our raises and jobs away,” the union president said, adding “if that’s the case then there is mismanagement of money.”
Hosko said when the city and FMBA 234 were negotiating the present contract several years ago, it was a different story.
“We helped you,” he said, explaining the fire union took two years without any raises. Hosko also blamed Roth for pushing a contract where they waited two years for a raise.
“Did he dangle a carrot? Was I duped?” he asked councilmembers, pointing out the city was supposed to “negotiate in good faith.”
“We would have went to arbitration but Roth said if you do that things might get difficult for you,”Hosko said, adding the council should “say what you mean and mean what you say.”
The union president also told council that the fire department is costing the city the same as it did seven years ago: $10.8 million.
“You can’t keep threatening us and demoting us. I put my life on the line every day when I go to work,” the firefighter added.
Another firefighter spoke, saying it was just three years ago that the city was in the same position financially.
“You as a council have a trust issue going on here,” he said.
Resident Paul Shapp lashed out at Labor Counsel Alan Roth, saying the attorney negotiated the last contract and “knew it would come back to haunt us.”