LINDEN — Despite efforts to slash the budget by $5.2 million, the city is still a long way from where they need to be. How that is resolved could depend heavily on who goes back to the negotiation table and who is asked to sit this one out.
As of late last week, the FMBA 234 union had made enough concessions in their contract to avoid 32 firemen being laid off. Unfortunately, the local PBA and four other unions were unable to do the same. That means 22 police officers are faced with losing their jobs on Aug. 1, including six new recruits who are still in the Union County Police Academy.
Additionally, all DPW, municipal employees and dispatchers will have to take mandatory furlough beginning in July. The mayor explained that this will amount to a half or full day each week, for a total of 16 full days off, or 32 half-days.
Although last month it was believed the city would shell out more in unemployment benefits than they would actually save in revenue if they initiated a furlough program, what they did not know is that expense depended on the number of days each employee was required to be off without pay.
Last week Gerbounka explained the city would only have to pay out more than they would save if the number of days equaled 20 percent of an employee’s salary.
“Our furloughs clearly would not reach that level,” the mayor said.
As the days and weeks have passed, the city council’s Personnel and Finance Committee, as well as the mayor and other council members, have held separate meetings with all six city employee union representatives. To date, only the FMBA has agreed to make concessions.
The second week of March, officials revealed that surplus, or savings, had dwindled down to a mere $85,000 and could no longer be tapped to reduce the budget. That left the city millions over the cap with no positive outlet to recover the money.
Since 2007, when the city had more than $41 million in surplus, officials were able to dip into these reserves to offset or reduce the amount to be paid by taxes. This year, though, with revenues drastically down and a declining tax base, a “perfect storm” of financial woes began to unfold, as Personnel and Finance Chairman Peter Brown called it in March. Brown is also the 3rd Ward Councilman.
As in the few previous years since Gov. Chris Christie made it law, the 2013 budget has to stay below the 2 percent state imposed cap. This cap is a safeguard measure to ensure taxes do not rise high overnight.
Earlier this year the city counsel and Gerbounka agreed the only way to come up with ways to cut $5.2 million from the budget was for the unions to give major concessions in their contracts. In fact, weeks ago counsel members made a plea to the unions to understand the city had never been in this kind of financial hole before.
“We just don’t have the money. We can do two things here: butt heads or go in a back room and make it work,” said 4th Ward Councilman Derek Armstead, referring directly to the 3.95 percent raises both the FMBA and PBA were due.
In the weeks that followed, PBA representatives met with various members of council, but according to the mayor, that did not end well. Last week the PBA voted 81-4 to turn down the city’s offer of concessions, including deferring their contracted raise.
News of the PBA vote raised the ire of Gerbounka and he did not hesitate to express how he felt.
“I’m very disappointed in the PBA,” said the mayor, a former police captain and PBA president. “It’s embarrassing. They are sacrificing their own members for their own greed.”
PBA Joe Birch does not see it that way at all. In fact, if he has any say about future trips to the negotiating table, the mayor will not be invited.
“Trust me, we care. But the mayor doesn’t have the time to let cooler heads prevail,” he said, adding that he is well aware the PBA is being “labeled” because they are the largest union.
Part of the problem, Birch felt, is that union representatives have not been able to sit down with the council as one unit. He said if that took place, he is certain something could be worked out. Until now the PBA has not met with the entire council, just the mayor, or several council members. This, said the PBA president, was not working to anyone’s advantage.
“We would like the opportunity to have discussions with all the council members,” he added, explaining that “honestly, there is still time.”
Although the situation appeared ominous late last week, Birch believes there still are “useful options” that could be considered to avoid drastic measures like laying off 22 police officers from a city that handles 60,000 calls for service each year.
“This is people’s lives we are talking about; police officers with families. Some of these police candidates in the academy left good paying jobs for a chance to become a Linden police officer. Other officers have done tours in Iraq and came back to this mess,” said the PBA president, adding that while PBA is aware of the financial difficulties facing the city, the union has a binding contract they negotiated in good faith.
“This shortfall is their fault, not ours. How come they didn’t plan for a rainy day?” Birch said.
Second Ward Councilman Rich Koziol, said late last week the council did make a commitment to the PBA and the other unions, but admitted this financial dilemma was new for everyone.
“We have never been in the situation we are in now,” he explained, adding that the council has cut everywhere they can.
“Three out of ten employees in the municipal building are gone and health benefits keep going up but employees are not paying anything towards these benefits,” Koziol added.
The councilman was also aware that the PBA, along with the other unions, voted down deferring their raises and agreeing to one furlough day a week.
“They don’t want to do anything to help and we are in a situation where we need their help,” he added, noting that he believed that the PBA “was calling our bluff.”
“We have to hold our ground because we have to come up with a budget,” Koziol said, adding that although he was around when the union contracts were negotiated, the fact remains that “things have changed.”
“We have been giving away a lot for a long time and its time our employees do the same,” he said.
Regardless of what the mayor or council members feel at this point, Birch strongly believed that if all parties sat down together, something could be worked out.
“Like I said, I would like to go back to the drawing table. There still is plenty of time before rash decisions are made,” The PBA president added.
But, even if the city and PBA come to a meeting of the minds, Gerbounka said there still would still be a shortfall of $1.2 million. That, he said, will require the city to take additional steps that would impact property owners.
“We have no choice but to charge taxpayers for their garbage,” the mayor said, noting that although last month he thought that number could go as high as $25, the estimate is now somewhere between $10 and $15 dollars per month.
“I know, I know, its another tax, but we don’t have any other option at this point,” Gerbounka said.