Brigantine‘s fire and police forces are coming off years of 20 percent annual raises as the resort town faces a serious budget crisis.
Salaries for the two unions have far outpaced inflation in a city where labor costs account for 63 percent of the total budget. Although such union payouts aren’t unprecedented for New Jersey, some local officials say they hurt taxpayers already reeling from Hurricane Sandy.
Meanwhile, police officers are working without new contracts as negotiations have languished since the fall. Union officials have balked at the city’s demand for no raises, saying there have been no true negotiations.
“They did ask for three zeros up front,” said Rich DeLeon, president of Brigantine PBA 204. “We said, ‘That’s preposterous.'”
DeLeon said the union paid for an audit of the city’s finances last month in anticipation of possible arbitration. City Manager Jennifer Blumenthal, meanwhile, is working on an “efficiency analysis” to determine how the city can reduce operation costs. She hopes to avoid an impasse, but said police negotiations have been difficult and slow-moving.
“We have negotiated various aspects and we’re at (the financial elements) right now, which is difficult to reconcile,” she said. “If we get to the point of saying ‘there’s nothing left to look at here,’ at that point we go to arbitration.”
The city is also negotiating with its beach patrol, dispatchers and teamsters unions, but those three do not represent large portions of the budget and historically have negotiated smaller raises. Salaries in the Teamsters union, particularly the drivers, generally have not kept pace with inflation. Firefighters, whose current contract expires at the end of 2013, will begin negotiations later this year.
This year’s negotiations – which began with the police in October – brought the city’s labor costs to the fore, but they’ve been mounting for years. Labor costs garnered added attention due to increased pressure from declining revenue and increasing tax appeals that also cut into the budget.
Most recent contracts for the city’s public safety departments, obtained through an Open Public Records Act request, have included sizable pay increases in addition to longevity, overtime and terminal pay bonuses.
The starting salary for a police officer, for instance, increased 44 percent between 1999 and 2012. A captain’s salary nearly doubled. Firefighters saw comparable increases over the same period.
According to city payroll documents, Brigantine has 35 employees earning more than $100,000 per year, including 19 in the Fire Department and 13 in the Police Department. Outside of those departments, only the city engineer, city manager and public works supervisor earn comparable pay.
Members of City Council’s new Democratic majority, which took power this year for the first time since 1897, said the outsized pay increases are a result of previous administrations, including some city officials who had relatives working in the departments.
Republican Mayor Phil Guenther, who’s served on council since 1990, said the negotiations always took place between the city manager and union representatives.
“(He would) inform council when a tentative agreement had been reached and ask for ratification . . . once it met the terms both parties wanted, as well as what council was willing to support,” he said.
Although Guenther’s brother-in-law is in the Fire Department, he said that fact played no role in his involvement.
“I approved the contract that was presented to me at the time that had support of City Council,” Guenther said.
Pullela, who was on council when the most recent firefighters’ contract was signed, said his input was never solicited and he was shut out of negotiations. This year’s negotiations have lasted longer, he said, because the city manager took a more active role in negotiating and solicited input from council.
Anne Philips, a former councilwoman and member of the Brigantine Taxpayers Association, said the city’s labor expenses were “reckless.”
Frank Kern, another council member, said the goal is to reduce staffing costs without having to lay anyone off. But he added that something must be done.
To that end, the budget City Council approved in May included several cuts, including to the Police Department’s operating budget, but also included a nearly 7 percent tax-rate increase.
In April, Blumenthal put out a call for voluntary furloughs from city employees to reduce operating costs. Six volunteered, although a number stated on their response form that they requested additional information.
DeLeon said he’s anticipating the next contract negotiation meeting being with the city’s newly appointed interim public safety director, who was himself appointed as a cost-saving measure in lieu of naming replacement chiefs.
“We’re walking into an unknown,” he said of the negotiations. “We’re pretty much anticipating starting over.”
It’s fair for taxpayers to question the union’s compensation, DeLeon said, but he hopes they consider all the facts, such as officers paying more out of pocket due to recent changes in state law.
DeLeon said he could not comment on compensation packages included in prior contracts because this is the first contract negotiation he’s been directly involved in.
Regardless of how the latest labor negotiations end, all of the contracts will be subject to stricter restrictions placed on union salaries. All of Brigantine‘s unions had signed new contracts shortly before those laws were enacted.
The fire department signed its latest contract just six days before Gov. Chris Christie unveiled a plan in 2010, which he had discussed for several months prior, to limit annual raises to 2.5 percent. The negotiated pay schedule saw many firefighters receiving cumulative annual raises of more than 20 percent. Guenther said he did not attend that meeting and didn’t vote for that contract.
Guenther said it’s clear to everyone that the latest contracts will be a lot different from those approved in the past. The state’s new 2 percent cap means that 2 percent will likely be the newmaximum, he said.
“Any contract negotiated today will reflect the economic realities of today,” he said. “Just as the contracts negotiated three or four years ago were negotiated in that context.”
Contact Wallace McKelvey