NJ judge approves conditional firefighter layoffs
Judge Julio Mendez gave the state the OK to use layoffs to cut the fire department from 195 to his court-ordered minimum of 180, but not before giving 60 days notice
By Amy S. Rosenberg
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — The Superior Court judge who nixed the state's most drastic plan to pare back Atlantic City's fire department has given a green light for the state to lay off a smaller number -- but not until February, when a new governor may in fact end the state takeover altogether.
In a ruling issued Wednesday, Judge Julio Mendez gave the state the OK to use layoffs to cut the fire department from 195 to his court-ordered minimum of 180, but not before giving 60 days notice after a federal grant expires Nov. 30.
The state had previously sought to go as low as 125 firefighters, but was blocked by the judge, who ruled that any reduction below 180 would compromise public safety in the casino resort city. Mendez recommended relying on attrition and retirement to achieve the lower number. He concluded in his latest ruling that the legislation authorizing the takeover gives the state the authority to use layoffs to reduce the department. As recently as last January, the department had 225 firefighters.
The judge's timeline pushes any layoffs to February, allowing the department to pursue other funding sources, the judge's ruling stated. Both gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Phil Murphy and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, have indicated that they may end the state takeover as governor. There could also be a new mayor, as Democrat Frank Gilliam is challenging incumbent Mayor Don Guardian.
The state assumed vast powers over the near-broke Atlantic City government last November, and Gov. Chris Christie essentially outsourced that authority to a West Orange law firm run by his longtime ally Jeffrey Chiesa, a former state attorney general who served briefly as an appointed U.S. Senator. He bills at $400 an hour.
The law firm, using a dozen or more of its partners and associates, is approaching $3 million in fees for its work, billable by the hour, much of it stemming from lawsuits involving efforts to change the contracts of the city's police and fire departments. The state also renegotiated tax appeals due the Borgata and other casinos, defusing those crises but keeping the city deep into debt for the foreseeable future.
Messages to the Fire Department union president, the state and the mayor's office were not immediately returned.
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