By David Cruz
On the day when a judge ruled that the state can essentially tear up its collective bargaining agreement with the city’s firefighters’ union, Mayor Don Guardian was pulling no punches and throwing subtly out the window.
“So it’s fitting that we’re here on March 17 as we remember St. Patrick ridding Ireland of the snakes and the poisonous venom that they spewed on the people of Ireland. Today, we pray to St. Patrick to help us rid Atlantic City of the Trenton snakes and the poison venom that they’ve given to our citizens,” he said.
With much of the ire directed at the state-appointed manager — former Sen. and State Attorney General Jeff Chiesa — speakers representing firefighters and police took turns bashing Chiesa’s $400 an hour rate while the state is proposes cuts in salaries and benefits, longer hours and staff reductions for firefighters and cops. Officer Josh Vadell — shot in the line of duty late last year — was greeted as a hero and could become the face of the struggle between the unions and the state.
“The state promises to run the city’s finances properly, but the state can’t even run a traffic study properly,” Vadell said. “I was told that there were people complaining about the compensation police and fire receive, but I can guarantee you this much. Most of us would rather be paid $400 per hour to sit in a heated and cooled office, pushing papers.”
“It is financially impossible for Atlantic City to continue with the status quo,” said a statement from the state. “This is really the last chance to keep the city on its feet and create a path to sustainability.”
The courts gave the state the go-ahead to impose new work rules on firefighters covering work schedules, platoon structures, salaries, overtime, health insurance and other previously negotiated terms. That left the union leadership looking deflated while they tried to sound the alarm about the potential impact of these cuts.
“The idea of reducing the amount of firefighters by 55 percent, which has been proposed, is reckless and dangerous. People and property will not be adequately protected. If the proposed 125-person fire department is implemented, and a firehouse closes, much of the city will be below national firefighting protection standards,” said Bill DiLorenzo, president of IAFF Local 198.
The police force faces similar cuts to salaries and benefits and threats to job security, including a plan to cut the force from 274 officers to 250. Up until last week, reports were that the police and the state were working on a deal, but, as of this week, the talks broke down.
“The last thing we wanted was to be involved in any kind of court battle. We wanted a fair and honest outcome to this. We understood the city’s plight and we’re willing to work with the city. We’re partners with the city; we’re partners with the community, the businesses and everyone else who has a stake in Atlantic City. We don’t come from the north just to take from Atlantic City and go back up north for the end of close business day,” said Matt Rogers, president of PBA Local 24.
On the boardwalk today, where cops and firefighters kicked off a leafleting campaign, there was general support from visitors, although there weren’t many of them to speak of. This is a city reeling from massive tax hikes and service cuts, choking on half a billion dollar debt and facing double digit unemployment after the closure of five casinos over the last two years. The unions vow to stay out here as long as it takes, but, if today’s court ruling is any indication, the state takeover could render their efforts moot.