Town, unions girding for new battle

By Ron Leir

This town is gearing up for a second go-round with its municipal labor unions as it projects possible layoffs and demotions in the ranks to balance its 2012 budget.
In a letter sent out to Kearny residents with the tax bills for the third and fourth quarter of 2011 and the first and second quarter of 2012, Mayor Alberto Santos says this year’s bills will see the average homeowner’s taxes rise by $296, broken down this way: $127 for municipal purposes, $107 for the county and $62 for schools.
On the municipal side of the ledger, Santos says cuts in state aid, coupled with increased spending for employee pension and health benefits, contributed to the toll on taxpayers’ wallets.
It could’ve been worse, Santos said, had the town not managed to save $4 million through negotiations with municipal labor unions leading to “unpaid (employee) furloughs, attrition and reductions in salary increases and overtime costs.”
For 2012, Santos said, “we are now preparing a new austerity plan . . . with the goal of achieving $5 million in cuts . . . .”
Asked to elaborate, the mayor said the town has begun negotiations with the unions to effect similar savings through furloughs, offering compensatory time in place of overtime and by not replacing employees who retire.
“In the absence of reaching agreements,” Santos said, “we will seek state approval for a layoff plan effective January 2012.”
“Because 75% of the municipal budget is related to employee costs,” Santos said, “these negotiations are essential to achieving a balanced budget through true shared sacrifice that includes both cuts and a livable tax increase.”
Elaborating, Town Administrator Michael Martello said that department heads are projecting costs for 2012 of about $77 million but revenues of only about $72 million, leaving a shortfall of about $5 million.
Aside from pension, health and Social Security costs, Martello said contractual employee salary hikes, steeper utility and insurance costs and increased payments to the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission account for the higher bills the town must pay next year.
The contracts with unions for the firefighters, police and civilian department heads expire in 2012; the contracts with civilian employees and crossing guards run through 2014.
If negotiations with the unions are unable to yield compromises similar to the ones struck last time around, then, Martello said, the town would look to implement a plan – contingent on state Civil Service Commission approval – that would result in 12 layoffs “across the board” among civilian workers to achieve $1 million in savings; nine layoffs and 17 demotions among all superior officer ranks in the Police Department to save $1.2 million; and 11 layoffs and demotions of four captains to firefighter in the Fire Department for a savings of $1 million.
Martello said that all the unions have been informed of the town’s plans and of its intent to “work with them toward some type of agreement” that could prevent layoffs.
It remains to be seen how the town would accomplish the remaining $1.8 million in cuts, although one possibility is that it could use part or all of its surplus account to offset any increase in taxes.
“There are a considerable number of people in the Police and Fire Departments and among the nonuniformed employees who are eligible to retire (in 2012),” Martello said, “and if any of them did retire, it would lessen the blow.”
Representatives of the town’s police and fire unions said they were concerned about the axe falling on their members in 2012.
Police Officer Glenn Reed, president of PBA Local 21, griped that while town officials liken themselves to victims of economic forces not under their control, he hasn’t seen any evidence of them trying to economize.
“The town hasn’t done anything differently (to save money),” Reed said. “They bought a new $500,000 fire truck, they’re still applying for grants they have to match with local money, they just purchased a new tree for outside Town Hall for $10,000, they paved Kearny Ave. and spent money on fireworks – they’ve balanced the budget on the backs of labor.”
Reed said the PBA leaders would be meeting shortly with the union attorney to weigh its options. “We’re hoping to get through this,” he added.
Firefighter James Carey, president of FMBA Local 18, said the union is “looking into ways to try to alleviate layoffs and/or demotions, but it’s going to be a lot harder than last time when we made a settlement on our contract and had retro money coming to us. We don’t have that luxury this time.”
Carey said the town was encouraging people to retire but anyone eligible to go now “will be looking to get that last raise from our (current) contract.”
Carey said that leaders of his local and Local 218, which represents the supervisory ranks, are still “reviewing the town’s numbers,” and “we’ll try to get a better grip on the situation by the end of September.”

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