Judge in Atlantic City blocks state-sought firefighter layoffs, contract changes

@aubreyjwhelan: Stretching caution tape across downed wires near the Atlantic City inlet. October 31, 2012.

ATLANTIC CITY -- The controversial state takeover of Atlantic City will get its first test in court courtesy of the firefighters' union, which is fighting 100 layoffs sought by the state in addition to dramatic contract changes.

On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez issued an order  temporarily blocking the state from imposing any layoffs or unilateral contract changes on the city's 225-member fire department.

The judge intervened in a fight between newly empowered state overseers and the city's public safety unions, including the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 198.

The firefighters' lawsuit, which argues that the state's action violates the New Jersey Constitution, comes as community groups also are considering legal action against the state takeover.

Mendez issued the restraining order Thursday afternoon even after the state said in a court filing it would hold off implementing the proposed 100 layoffs until September, and would delay changes to pay structure, hours, overtime, and benefits until Feb. 19.

But the judge's order bars the state from taking any action under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act that is "in violation of the Due Process and Equal Protection, Contracts, Takings, Collective Negotiation, and Civil Service clauses of the New Jersey Constitution."

The case is the first legal challenge to the broad takeover of Atlantic City imposed by the state in November and will be a significant test of the its constitutionality against criticisms that it violates residents' civil rights and the collective bargaining rights of the city's unions.

Mendez set a hearing for 9:30 a.m. Feb. 13. 

The lawsuit was filed this week in state court, then transferred to federal court at the state's request, then withdrawn by the union in federal court and refiled in modified form in Superior Court.

The state is trying to have the case again transferred to federal court.

On Thursday, Ronald Israel, a law partner of state overseer Jeffrey Chiesa, wrote to Mendez saying that because of the delay in the layoffs, no injunction would be necessary. Chiesa is billing his work at $400 an hour; Israel at $350 per hour, according to the retention agreement.

Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the Department of Community Affairs, said the judge's order would not change the state's timetable for the changes, because the state had already decided to push back implementation to Feb. 19  "as a good-faith gesture to give the fire department more time to prepare."

The firefighters are arguing that Atlantic City's high-rises, hotels, and tourism justify the staffing levels. There are 225 firefighters. The department is 7 percent of the overall city budget, the union has said.

Mendez has presided over numerous cases related to Atlantic City's financial predicament, including negotiations with the Borgata hotel casino over tax settlements.

He previously ruled against the state when it attempted to force the city to pay taxes to the school district before making its own payroll.

Bill Dilorenzo, head of Local 198, said the September date postponed the threatened layoffs until the end of a federal grant that already covers 85 firefighters.

He said the state has long known about this grant, and had still been saying it would order 100 layoffs this month -- until the union filed in court for a temporary restraining order.

"Everybody involved has known the SAFER grant expires in September," Dilorenzo said. "At the last minute, they just did this to circumvent our day in court.”

Dilorenzo also said the state overseers -- who assumed wide control over Atlantic City's government and assets after a state takeover law was passed in an effort to stabilize the city's finances -- have threatened layoffs without indicating who would be fired.

"In the end, we’re firemen," he said. "We’re not a bunch of punks sitting on the street. Can we get a little respect?"

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