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Talks Stalled for Camden Firefighters, Police

Talks Stalled for Camden Firefighters, Police

Philadelphia Inquirer via YellowBrix

January 13, 2011

CAMDEN – Days before Camden lays off as many as half of its police officers and a third of its Fire Department, negotiations between the city and the public safety unions appear to be at a stalemate, with the mayor saying the unions won’t accept concessions.

“Police and fire have not given up one thing,” Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd said in an interview at her office Wednesday. “They’ve given up absolutely nothing.”

Union officials angrily rejected that assertion and laid out specific contract concessions that they said they had offered to the city to save jobs.

“It’s OK to say we’ve reached an impasse, but don’t come out and say we haven’t brought anything to the table and are not negotiating, because that’s a flat-out misrepresentation,” said Fraternal Order of Police president John Williamson.

At the police officers’ union hall Wednesday night, Williamson revealed correspondence between the city attorney and the union attorney that indicates the unions and the city agreed on several issues – including officer furlough days, 18-month wage freezes, and longer shifts. Differences, particularly on benefits, remain.

The city said that although there has been some agreement on specific concessions, the four police and fire unions are demanding new contracts in conjunction with concessions, and that drives up immediate costs. Police officers and firefighters are working on contracts expired since 2008.

Concessions must be handled within the context of contract renewals, Williamson countered, because otherwise there will be another fight in six months, when the new fiscal year begins and a new fiscal crisis is expected.

Redd declined to detail the concession offers, but asked whether union leadership was telling members exactly what the city was offering. “Have they fully, truthfully taken it for a full membership vote, or are they misleading them?” she asked.

Union leaders, meanwhile, questioned the mayor’s good faith. They said Redd had failed to say how many jobs would be saved from two pots of money the city received late last year: $4 million from the South Jersey Port Corp., which she had said would go to the Police Department, and $1.5 million from the governor for layoff reduction, which she had said would go to the Fire Department.

Redd stopped short Wednesday of saying that money would definitely be used to reduce public safety layoffs. First, she wants the four unions to come up with $2 million each in cost savings. “It’s a dollar-for-dollar match,” she said.

And even if that money is used for layoff reduction, she said, she needs approval from the state before saying how many jobs would be saved. Still, Redd acknowledged that some police officers and firefighters who are laid off could be called back to the job weeks later if negotiations get back on track.

Camden, routinely ranked as one of the most dangerous and poorest cities in the country, is facing an unprecedented budget shortfall, including $14.7 million for the police and $7.5 million for the Fire Department. With 67 firefighters and 180 officers scheduled to lose their jobs, there have been no in-person negotiations since December. A meeting with one of the fire bargaining units is planned for Friday.

Kenneth Chambers, the president of the union representing rank-and-file firefighters, said that his union was in arbitration with the city, but that Redd had refused to accept a mediator’s finding that firefighters get modest pay increases – 2.5 percent for 2009 and 2 percent for the following three years – while giving back a range of concessions on benefits.

“The city didn’t even answer,” he said.

The fire union’s attorney, Raymond G. Heineman, said he even offered to move firefighters to the state benefits plan, which would save at least $4 million, but the city was “nonresponsive.”

“That we’ve been unable to make concessions is simply not accurate,” Heineman said. “It’s absolutely the case that the city is using these layoffs to leverage concessions.”

But Redd said she simply did not “have the ability to pay” salaries and benefits at their current rates, and she blasted recent union-sponsored newspaper advertisements and fliers that warned residents of dire circumstances if police and fire services are cut. “They really need to come to the table to talk about how to save the members’ jobs instead of stoking fear in the public,” she said.

Redd said it costs $212,000 to pay for the benefits, salary, and perks for the average superior officer in the Police Department. And since nonuniform city employees have already sacrificed – they had weekly furlough days last year and are facing 136 layoffs this year – it was time for police and fire to step up.

She cited other financial sacrifices on the horizon, like the elimination of the animal control department and the end of the city libraries, which are slated to be taken over by Camden County. Property taxes are increasing, too, and she wants to eliminate the city’s 911 dispatch service and merge it with the county. And Redd listed a litany of plans to raise money, including assessing fees on new developments and the Parking Authority.

Redd said that no matter what, there will be just as many officers out on the street after Tuesday’s layoffs because of a restructuring of the Police Department that will take officers working in administration and put them back on patrol.