LINDEN — The city and Police PBA have yet to come to a meeting of the minds in order to avoid layoffs.
Bottom line: If the council and police union cannot strike some kind of deal in the next few weeks, 31 police officers, or less, depending on the number of officers retiring this year, will be laid off. The city council has approved the layoff plan and it has been sent to the state for approval.
The only way to avoid police layoffs of officers hired since 2007 is for the PBA Local 42 to agree to delay their 3.95 percent raise until July 2014. The way it appears right now, that probably will not happen because council refused to give in to their asking for a “giveback” for doing so.
The first casualties of the 2013 budget were six recruits who have been in the police academy the last six months. The city has been paying each of the recruits $45,000 a year, plus health benefits, until they complete training, but any promise of a secure position with the city police department ended last week when they found out there would not be a place for them on the force when they graduated June 11.
According to local PBA President Joe Birch, a detective with the Linden police department, two of the recruits were immediately snapped up by the city of Rahway.
“Which means Rahway gets the benefit of our town paying for these recruits training and we don’t,” Birch said late last week.
In two weeks, the city is expected to introduce its 2013 $99.2 million budget, but it is tentative right now. Officials still are holding out hope that the PBA will agree to delaying their raises, but so far that does not look promising. In return for delaying their raise, PBA members want an extra holiday, which council has refused to agree to so far.
At issue, according to Mayor Rich Gerbounka, is the fact that city firemen did not receive any concessions and there has always been parody between the two factions. Approximately 32 of the FMBA 234 city firemen avoided losing their jobs in early May when they agreed to delay their 3.95 percent July raise until 2014.
The annual budget, $57.6 million of which is supported by taxes, if adopted as is, will cost the average property owner with a house assessed at $138,000 an increase of approximately $144.90.
It should be noted that municipal taxes are only one portion of taxpayers three-part tax bill, which incudes school and county taxes. After all three are combined, property owners have a true picture of how their taxes will be impacted this year.
The 2013 budget turned out to be more complicated than anyone expected. With more than $40 million in surplus, or savings, tapped since 2007 to offset the budget, the city is down to almost nothing in savings.
Despite efforts to slash dollars, the city ended up going over the state mandated 2 percent cap by $1.2 million. That amount has to be reduced one way or another and the only option left, according to officials, is to cut employees and have the remaining city employees take a mandatory unpaid furlough day each week.
Gerbounka, a retired Linden police captain himself, felt that considering the financial problems the city is having, PBA members should not expect anything in return for helping the city.
“We are just asking them to ride this out with us, like the fire department agreed to do, until 2014 when fiscally we will be in better shape,” the mayor said, explaining the city will be seeing $2.5 million revenue in February from Spectra Energy for a pipe-line under the New Jersey Turnpike.
In May Gerbounka said as many as 22 police officers could be laid off by Aug. 1, but this week it appeared that number could go down to as low as 10, depending on the number of retiring officers this year.
Gerbounka said 31 police layoffs is a worst case scenario, but he is expecting that four or five officers are scheduled to retire in July and another 12 are eligible by the end of the year.
“You are not talking about bodies here. It comes down to dollars,” the mayor added, pointing out that if a police captain retires, the city saves money because of the high salary, as opposed to a regular police officer who makes considerably less.
“That could save two or three patrol officers’ jobs,” Gerbounka said.
Taxpayers will also be feeling the financial pinch this year if the city moves forward with a $15 monthly garbage surcharge.
The surcharge would be levied twice a year, Gerbounka said, but hopefully end when the city climbs out of the financial hole it is in right now.
Even though this is not the first time the city has faced budget problems, this year has certainly taken its toll on the mayor, council and employees.
Grueling negotiations and budget meetings have left both elected officials and public safety representatives worn and unable to resolve the fiscal dilemma.
The mayor pointed out that all union contracts were negotiated in good faith, but this was done in 2008, before the economy plummeted.
According to Birch his members “just want a compromise.” The compromise they are looking for is an extra holiday.
“They can’t expect us to delay our raises without offering us something,” Birch said in an interview late last week.
Gerbounka, while aware that putting raises on hold until next year is a sacrifice, noted that FMBA members accepted the offer without a problem.
“Giving the PBA a giveback isn’t fair to the FMBA,” the mayor said Friday in an interview, adding that while council will be discussing the matter June 17, he is doubtful they would go along with what the PBA is asking.
“I know how they feel and they don’t think its is right to reward one union and not the other,” Gerbounka said, adding that normally there is parody between the two public safety departments.
Meanwhile, Birch said that even though PBA representatives were invited to a meeting two weeks ago with several council members and the mayor where the issue of the budget problem was discussed, the PBA had no input.
“We were not allowed to speak, so it was nothing but confusion,” he explained.
“I really want to get this over with. We are just looking for a compromise,” Birch added.
Part of the problem, Birch said, was that even though there have been “conversations” about setting things, he has not seen anything “in writing.”
“I actually thought we were making progress, but other than the first offer they made, which was not acceptable and voted down by our members, we have seen nothing in writing,” the PBA president said.
“It’s not for a lack of trying on our part,” Birch added, pointing out that any offer has to be in writing so he can bring it back to the PBA members for a vote.
“Conversation is one thing, but if they have an offer it has to be given to us officially,” Birch said.
Friday the mayor and Birch met again but according to the mayor the only thing on the table was the PBA wants the additional holiday added to the nine they already get.
Gerbounka explained that while police and fire usually have to work on holidays, they can take the holiday off another time.
“I can tell you that council is not going to go for this because it isn’t fair to the firemen,” the mayor said, adding that he and the council believe that with the city in a financial crisis, the PBA should be willing to do what they have to do to keep their jobs.