A New Jersey judge temporarily blocked the state Friday from laying off firefighters in Atlantic City, but ruled that their work schedules, salaries, and overtime can be changed by former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey S. Chiesa (R., N.J.), who is directing the state takeover of Atlantic City.
The firefighters union had sued to stop layoffs and changes to its contract.
In his ruling, Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez said the state's proposal to cut 100 firefighters — reducing the total to 125 — would compromise public safety. But Mendez concluded a smaller number of layoffs would be justified, given the city's "serious economic distress."
"A reduction to 180 would be more than reasonable," he wrote.
The state takeover law, the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, gives Trenton broad powers in Atlantic City — including amending contracts with public employees — to try to stabilize the city's finances.
Mendez said that Chiesa, under that act, has "broad, extensive, and unilateral powers in order to achieve financial stability for Atlantic City" — but that he can't base decisions only on cost savings, particularly when it comes to public safety.
Mendez said that before the litigation, Chiesa had offered few reasons as to why Atlantic City should have 125 firefighters, as opposed to another number. The union had argued having that fewer firefighters would leave the city undermanned.
Atlantic City's full-time population is nearly 40,000, but it can swell to 165,000 with visitors and commuters.
In a statement Friday, Bill Dilorenzo, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 198, slammed the idea of layoffs.
"If you're trying to increase the number of visitors to Atlantic City and improve its perception as a family destination, why in the world would you make these types of drastic cuts to public safety?" he said.
The state applauded Mendez's ruling.
"We appreciate Judge Mendez's thoughtful decision and are very pleased that our authority under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act was recognized," said Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs. "We look forward to continuing to have discussions with the city's firefighters, which is something we've wanted to do all along."
She added: "In order for Fire Department savings to be realized, we must act now, because further delays imperil our ability to achieve a balanced city budget without requiring greater sacrifices by Atlantic City taxpayers, many of whom are homeowners and small-business owners who are already overburdened by property taxes."
In his ruling, Mendez bluntly described the tension between the state and Atlantic City officials.
"The tenor of this case has so far been hostile at best," Mendez wrote, "with the parties utilizing terms such as 'greedy' and phrases such as 'robbing the candy store' to describe one another's actions."
Indeed, at a news conference early Friday afternoon, Mayor Don Guardian found another word to describe Trenton officials: "Snakes."
"This is a fight between the governor of this state and the people of this state," Guardian said. He added: "Let's find the money we need."