Camden mayor drafts budget restructuring plan to save 27 firefighter jobs

Fire trucks are parked inside Liberty Fire Station on Broadway in Camden, N.J.  (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Fire trucks are parked inside Liberty Fire Station on Broadway in Camden, N.J. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Camden Mayor Frank Moran says he has a budget restructuring plan that will avoid having to lay off 27 firefighters that are currently paid for by an expiring grant. Moran’s office sent a letter to the New Jersey Civil Service Commission outlining the plan Monday.

The FEMA grant covering the jobs ends in June. The department is seeking $2.4 million to save the firefighters’ spots.

Ali Cooper, president of firefighters union Local 788, appreciates that the mayor’s plan “keeps all boots on the ground,” but said it hurts the fire department in a different way.

“[The plan] adversely affects the command level,” Cooper said. “Command staff is important as well. Deputy chiefs and battalion chiefs are important on the ground. It’s an important safety feature. You need deputy chiefs, battalion chiefs and fire marshal investigators.”

According to a letter from the mayor’s office obtained by WHYY, two deputy chief positions, a battalion fire chief, a fire captain and two fire prevention specialists will be laid off. Six vacant firefighter positions will not be filled. Overall, that means the department gets smaller, but avoids losing front-line firefighters now on the job.

While the proposed measure could save the jobs of 27 firefighters, it would eliminate several key members of the Camden Fire Department’s hierarchy. Cooper believes any loss to the department’s rank and file is a critical loss for the Camden community.

“Every position is important to public safety,” Cooper said. “Those guys are watching for collapses and other dangers that enter fire scenes.”

In addition to the proposed staffing changes, Moran’s plan calls for cutting fire department overtime by $700,000 and office costs by $100,000.

The Camden Fire Department has roughly 160 employees. It had 215 firefighters in 2011, but was forced to eliminate 60 of those positions to help close a $26.5 million budget shortfall.

In 2016, a $5 million FEMA grant allowed the department to hire firefighters for the first time in a decade.

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