Firefighters resist cuts as state takeover of Atlantic City rolls on

 Atlantic City firefighters from Station 4,  Engine 4, Ladder 2, California Ave. prepare for duty. (Anthony Smedile for NewsWorks)

Atlantic City firefighters from Station 4, Engine 4, Ladder 2, California Ave. prepare for duty. (Anthony Smedile for NewsWorks)

The Atlantic City firefighters union is hoping a New Jersey judge will block a plan to slash pay and benefits, lengthen shifts, and cut the departments 225-person workforce nearly in half.

Atlantic City, which has seen five casinos close and its tax base shrink in recent years, is deep in debt and now under the control of the administration of Gov. Chris Christie.

On Tuesday attorneys for the union argued before Judge Julio Mendez that implementing the cost-saving measures at the fire department would unfairly break the union contract and threaten public safety.

But attorneys representing the state claimed the cuts would save Atlantic City $14 million this year and $5 million per year afterward — and were part of a shared sacrifice needed among municipal employees as the city digs itself out of a financial hole.

After the Legislature approved the state takeover last fall, the Christie administration assumed control of Atlantic City to help the seaside resort close a $100 million budget gap and pay down $500 million in debt.

This lawsuit is the first major test of the takeover law, which critics have called unconstitutional.

In December former U.S. Senator Jeff Chiesa, the state-designated overseer of Atlantic City, proposed broad-based cost-cutting measures to the fire department.

The union quickly sued to block the changes.

In court Ron Israel, an attorney at Chiesa’s law firm, argued the law gives the state wide latitude to break contracts and cut benefits across departments in Atlantic City — and that firefighters were no different. “We have to be able to go after everybody,” said Israel.

Union president Bill Dilorenzo said that firefighters were willing to do their fair share to salvage Atlantic City’s finances but that the state’s proposal went too far. “To come here and say that we’re unwilling to save money is absolutely not true,” he said.

The issue before Judge Mendez now is whether to continue blocking the implementation of the proposed cuts until after the trial ends or let them proceed now.

Mendez gave little indication of how he is leaning. He told union attorneys that “there’s not enough money to go around” in Atlantic City these days, after years of casino closings and shrinking tax revenues. Later in the hearing, he said that the takeover law had “limited checks and balances” and only allowed cost-saving measures that were “reasonable.”

Mendez vowed to issue a ruling in the next few days.

Since the state takeover took effect more than three months ago, state officials have also started negotiations with the police department and settled a tax dispute with the Borgata casino. 

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