By Ron Leir
Kearny’s Bravest and town officials are deadlocked on efforts to negotiate a new labor contract so the town wants to dump the mess into the hands of a third party to settle.
Members of the town’s governing body voted Sept. 11 to petition the state Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) for an interest arbitration, which means – under a law signed by Gov. Chris Christie in in December 2010 – that an arbitrator cannot award public employees pay increases that exceed 2 percent of the employees’ current base salary.
Christie’s intent was to mimic New Jersey’s 2% cap on the state’s property tax increases.
Under the law, arbitrators are also limited to awards that deal only with employees’ base salary and cannot touch on non-salary economic issues such as health insurance and retirement provisions.
The old contract between the town and Local 18 expired June 30.
In its resolution that authorizes taking the contract to compulsory arbitration, the town says that “on or about June 30,” it signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with Local 18’s bargaining committee on a “financial settlement” and “distribution plan” that would have satisfied the two percent cap while continuing to bargain “on other terms and conditions of employment…” conditional on ratification by the local’s membership.
However, according to Mayor Alberto Santos, in three separate votes taken over a period of about two weeks, Local 18’s membership rejected the MOA, along with the town’s “modifications … dealing exclusively with financial distributions of money produced in accordance in accordance with the two percent cap.”
Firefighter Michael Richardson, the Local 18 representative at the bargaining table, couldn’t be reached for the local’s assessment of the situation.
At this point, the council resolution says, the town has reassessed its bargaining position and has opted for the arbitration route as a fiscal strategy “to permit hiring of new firefighters to fill vacancies created by retirement or other attrition as well as moderating any tax increase.”
Santos declined to discuss specific details of the negotiations but said the town “tried to be fair” in its offer to the local “but the bottom line is cost.“
Even if the town ends up hiking firefighters’ base pay by two percent, Santos said, “there are still fiscal restraints (on the town).” Working with fewer Fire Department personnel, “we reduced fire protection by one company this year,” he noted.
To deal with the depleted ranks of Fire Department personnel, the town is looking to another outsider – the federal government – for help, albeit temporary, in paying for extra personnel.
At the same Sept. 11 session, the Town Council directed its grants consultant James Bruno to apply to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s for a fiscal 2012 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant that would allow Kearny to hire eight new firefighters.
Earlier this year, Kearny tried to get federal funding for four new firefighters but was turned down so now, the town is renewing its request – this time for twice as many personnel. Fire Chief Steve Dyl said the grant amount being sought is about $1.1 million for two years and would cover the cost of salaries and health benefits.
The current entry level pay for a newly hired Kearny firefighter is $30,000 a year; the cost of health insurance can vary depending on the number of persons in a firefighter’s family being covered, Dyl said.
Under the grant terms, the town must agree to maintain at least the same number of firefighters it had when it received the grant so if a firefighter is lost through death, disability or retirement, that individual must be replaced, Santos said.
After the two-year grant period, the town would pick up the entire cost of the eight firefighters’ pay and health benefits.
Santos and Town Administrator Michael Martello said that according to an assessment by the National Fire Protection Association, Kearny is 16 firefighters below the recommended strength for a town of Kearny’s size. The town’s Fire Department is currently operating with a total of 63 rank-and-file firefighters, “so we should be at 79,” Santos said.
With its complement of fire officers, the department “is running with 17 per shift,” the mayor said.
Under the existing contract with Local 18, firefighters start at a base salary of $30,000 a year and advance to $98,000 after eight years, Santos said.
Meanwhile, Dyl said the Fire Dept. is “still a couple of months away” from initiating the previously townapproved plan to shift dispatching of fire alarm calls to the East Orange Fire Department. communications center.
Phone lines are being tested, the system’s technology – Computer Aided Dispatch interface – is being readied, and East Orange staff are being trained to include Kearny in the system, Dyl said. “Advanced life support” ambulance calls will be handled through the county’s emergency 911 system but, for the first year of the new setup, Kearny will continue to handle “basic life support” ambulance calls, Santos said.