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Kevin Riordan: N.J. town's emotions flare amid looming firefighter layoffs

Simple red-and-white signs around town only hint at the heat of Gloucester City's struggle over the looming layoffs of 15 municipal employees, including eight in the Fire Department.

Simple red-and-white signs around town only hint at the heat of Gloucester City's struggle over the looming layoffs of 15 municipal employees, including eight in the Fire Department.

The "We Support our Gloucester City Firefighters" placards look downright decorous compared to some of the more explosive emotions at a standing-room-only City Council meeting May 27.

But in Gloucester as elsewhere these days, political battles are fought not only via packed rooms, lawn signs, and letters to the editor, but also on websites, blogs, Facebook pages, and YouTube videos. And matters can get every bit as personal in cyberspace.

The full-time, paid Fire Department is characterized as "a bunch of seventh-grade girls," and critics are accused of a willingness to risk lives. Online posts claiming to possess "real" facts alternately depict firefighters as swashbuckling heroes or overpaid desk jockeys.

"They put my home address and phone number online and told people to come and knock on my door," says Bill Cleary, whose "Cleary's Note Book" blog closely covers this Delaware River city of 11,500.

A Facebook page recently targeted Cleary, the publisher emeritus of the city's weekly paper, and called for the shutdown of his blog for "demonizing" firefighters. He had questioned department spending, as well as the provenance of an official-looking "just the facts" website that's cheerleading for the department.

Given the $1.3 million municipal budget gap and the state's fiscal crisis, no questions ought to be off the table - even in a community where the memories of a brutal blaze eight years ago haven't faded, particularly among what's often called a brotherhood of firefighters.

The July 4, 2002, inferno in a house on North Broadway killed three young sisters and three firefighters. They are memorialized at the department's King Street headquarters, where a handsome sculpture garden expresses not only the grief of the entire community, but also the solidarity among the families, friends, and supporters of generations of firefighters from across the region.

The memorial means something.

But so do the city's budget numbers.

"The money's not there," says Jack Lipsett, city administrator. "The heady days of the '90s and early 2000s are done."

In the center of town, Mike Hall and his wife, Barbara, own Duffy's Delicious Candies Inc.

"I really don't want to see any layoffs," says Mike, a retired Camden police officer. "You don't want fire coverage to suffer. A matter of seconds can mean lives.

"On the other hand, I can see it from the side of a taxpayer," he adds. "I believe there have to be some sort of caps on spending. It's got to be reasonable."

Gloucester firefighters are working under a 2008 contract that provides a starting salary of $39,920. Not bad for someone who may not have a college degree, but does have a desire to serve the public.

So, for this working-class town to even consider laying off firefighters, as Collingswood has done and Passaic and Irvington may do, suggests the gravity of the situation, locally and statewide.

After all, not for nothing has New Jersey become America's unofficial Capital of Taxation.

"We're sorry for all the people who are hurting," says Robert Brower, vice president of the Firemen's Benevolent Association (FMBA). The union has 118 locals and 5,500 members statewide, including Gloucester.

"We've made concessions," he says. "Administration [jobs] have been cut to the max in fire departments. We need to work together to come up with solutions."

City officials and union representatives will resume talks Friday.

Lipsett says Gloucester has made proposals regarding sick time and vacation pay that could yield savings and save jobs. Jeff Sanderson, president of FMBA Local 251, says the union is willing to listen.

"We don't want these layoffs," he says. "We're going to do everything we can."