By Ron Leir
Kearny can expect to see its public safety complement built up a bit later this year.
So predicted Mayor Alberto Santos, who told The Observer last week that the town “has asked New Jersey Civil Service to certify [appointment] lists for police and fire [departments] – the first of several steps that have to be taken” toward eventual new hires.
Only recently, the federal government turned aside the town’s application for a little more than $1 million in Staffing for Emergency & Fire Response funding to pay salaries and benefits for eight new firefighters for two years. After that, the town would have had to shoulder the entire financial burden.
In the application, Fire Chief Steven Dyl said his department, currently at 87 members, desperately needed more personnel, having had to shut down one fire company in the past year for lack of sufficient firefighters, while being called on for mutual aid by surrounding communities more and more frequently.
Dyl further said that the town was appealing for federal aid because it – like other municipalities in the state – finds itself in a tight fiscal squeeze, given the governor’s mandated 2% cap on local spending.
But now, Santos said, Kearny has no choice but to bite the fiscal bullet and look to its own resources to ensure that local residents and businesses are adequately protected against fire and crime.
How many new cops and firefighters will be put on the town payroll “depends on how much we have in the municipal budget and on the number of retirees in the Police and Fire Departments,” Santos said.
“My guess,” the mayor said, “is that there will be anywhere from four to eight [new hires] in each department.” Salaries for new entry-level cops and firefighters run in the $40,000 range plus an additional $15,000 to $20,000 for benefits.
Personnel numbers could drop even lower in both departments as early as this year when, according to town personnel records, a dozen members of the Fire Department and as many as 28 from the Police Department become eligible to put in their retirement papers after reaching 25 years of service.
About 70% of the potential police retirees and about 60% of the prospective fire retirees would come from superior officer ranks, with the balance from rank-and-file, said Town Administrator Michael Martello. If everybody who could go did leave, the Police Department roster would fall from its current 97 to 69 and the Fire Department, from 87 to 75, with the latter drop likely forcing more company closures.
Again, though, Martello and Santos said they have no way of knowing what the outcome will be, particularly since even if an employee applies for a retirement pension, he or she can still opt to withdraw the application at the last minute.
Complicating the equation, Santos said, is that, “in both Police and Fire Departments, we have dedicated employees who enjoy their jobs and who don’t like to leave after 25 years” (minimum service time needed for retirement). On the other hand, he said, others may prefer to take their pension at the current health co-pay rates rather than face mandated higher co-pays in future years.
The decline of personnel through attrition in the town’s uniformed ranks mirrors the hits taken, through layoffs and retirements, among its civilian work force. Overall, Santos said the town’s total work force, currently in the 340 range, has declined by 52, since 2009.
In another public safety development, the town could be looking to hire non-uniformed employees to serve as round-the- clock dispatchers to handle fire-related calls at the Fire Department communications center on Maple St.
Santos said the town is “investigating the costs of a civilian dispatch system” and, to that end, has “[notified] Civil Service that we’re interested in hiring for that position,” now that the town has decided to abandon a July 2012 agreement to contract with the City of East Orange for “shared fire emergency and non-emergency dispatch services.”
Kearny and East Orange had signed a one-year deal, through June 30, 2013, with Kearny paying $6,500 for dedicated phone lines and software, with options to renew for two more years at annual costs of about $90,000.
Since the dispatching service was to be provided by East Orange Fire Headquarters, Kearny arranged for what Santos described as “partial installation” of dedicated transmission lines and software to link the two communities but last fall’s SuperStorm Sandy exposed “shortfalls” in the system, according to Santos.
“The system was not yet in use at the time,” the mayor said, “but if it had been, we would’ve had coverage gaps in the service.”
Doing the job in-house, Santos said, “we can rely on our own communications system and technology which didn’t fail during Sandy.”
Santos said the town legal department is assessing “recovery costs” from the East Orange contract.
In the meantime, Santos said the town would likely switch from the current system of firefighters handling fire calls, to civilians. “We’re looking at the number of shifts, hours and number of employees required per shift, and whether we’d use part-time or full-time employees,” he added.
Santos acknowledged that while the town would like to fill several “clerical and secretarial” vacancies in various departments, “the priority is on public safety-related positions.”
The governing body will have to find a way to fund the new jobs, even with a municipal budget which, as introduced several weeks ago, would hike taxes on an average house ($100,000 assessment) by an estimated $140, just on the municipal tax portion. Although overall employee salaries are down, employee health coverage and pension costs are up, as are the county’s solid waste tipping fees which, at $100 per ton, are reportedly the highest in the state, town officials say.