Judge halts Christie's Atlantic City police layoffs

File photo: Saturday July 04, 2015: Here, the packed AC boardwalk. ( ED HILLE / staff photographer )

A Superior Court judge has temporarily blocked the State of New Jersey from unilaterally imposing layoffs and schedule changes on the Atlantic City Police Department.

The ruling is the second time Judge Julio Mendez has checked the vast powers granted the Christie administration under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, which went into force in November.

The judge previously prevented the state from laying off half the fire department, but allowed other changes, including a switch to a 24-hour work schedule for firefighters, to go ahead while a lawsuit challenging the state’s powers goes forward.

The 59-page decision, released Tuesday, also blocks the state’s plan to eliminate terminal leave payouts under $15,000 for police officers, but allows the state to go forward with plans to cut payouts — the so-called “boat payments” that officers get when they leave, based on unused sick and vacation time — that are more than $15,000.

The state is also free to go ahead with unilateral changes in salary, health insurance, overtime, longevity, and educational incentive pay and worker compensation.

The judge reiterated his opinion that the takeover law, which allows the state to unilaterally change union contracts, provides “broad but not unlimited authority.”

He said he allowed changes to go forward that involve financial issues, but drew the line at issues that dealt with ensuring public safety.

Matt Rogers, head of the police union, Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 24, said the order blocks an estimated 20 layoffs, which would have lowered the number of officers to 250, and prevents the state from switching schedules from a 10-hour to a 12-hour day. The judge accepted arguments by the union that the police chief should retain day-to-day control over operations. Police Chief Henry White testified that the 12-hour shifts would compromise public safety.

The department has seen drastic cuts. It was down from a peak of 423 officers in 2001 to 275 full and 75 Class 2 officers in 2017. With recent retirements, the current force is 269.

Rogers said he was disappointed that the judge did not halt all the unilateral changes the state sought to impose under the takeover law, which the union and the fire department union will continue to challenge in court.

“We’re not angry at anyone but the man responsible,” Rogers said. “It’s not the city, the mayor, or the City Council. It’s the governor and his appointees. We tried our best to negotiate a deal and it was pulled away from us.”

The state, after negotiations with the union broke down, ordered White to fire 27 employees to reduce the department to 250 members, and he was given no criteria but to “fire the problem employees,” the judge’s decision noted. White refused, “considering the directives arbitrary.”

The ruling comes at a fraught time in the resort, which has seen three recent homicides in the Marina district. The Police Department is set to unveil a surveillance system that will allow officers to keep watch over the Boardwalk and other areas.

The state argued the changes would save $19 million for the cash-strapped resort town. The two parties met 12 times in negotiations, but the judge noted that “mutual bravado …  led to the breakdown in negotiations.” He urged them to keep negotiating and noted that both sides were close to a resolution that included early retirement incentives.

“Tragically, negotiations collapsed,” Mendez wrote. “The bottom line is that both sides’ gamesmanship and recalcitrance is a detriment to reach important common ground.”

The state called the police union position a “money grab,” and the plaintiffs described the state’s position as a “nuclear bomb” with no concern for public safety, the judge noted.

“The court acknowledges that the state’s proposed changes to plaintiffs’ [contracts] are harsh,” Mendez wrote. The contracts, he said, “reflected the city’s economic prosperity and properly rewarded plaintiffs for the important work they perform. Now, Atlantic City is financially depressed and regrettably, everyone must share in the burden to stabilize the city."

He also ruled that the state’s proposal to do away with terminal leave of up to $15,000 for accumulated sick leave upon retirement is “unreasonable and inconsistent with the requirements of the Recovery Act.”

Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the state’s designee in Atlantic City, said in an email that the decision “reaffirms our authority under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act and allows us to proceed with reductions to police salaries and benefits, which are critical to stabilizing Atlantic City’s finances. It is also the latest sign that the state is holding the line on expenses and producing quantifiable results, including the first municipal property tax decrease in the city in a decade. While we respectfully disagree with parts of the decision, overall the court found that the state has wide latitude to intervene in the city in order to protect the public’s welfare, health and safety.”