SOBOT passes budget without support from some unions

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange Board of Trustees passed the 2020 municipal budget at its June 8 meeting, setting into motion plans to apply to civil service for furloughs and layoffs in the South Orange Fire and Police departments after three of the unions did not accept a proposed 2-percent pay freeze over the next two years as a way to mitigate budget shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The BOT and village President Sheena Collum discussed the proposal at the meeting, in addition to having a conversation with FMBA locals 40 and 240 representative Michael Cummins.

Before Cummins spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, municipal clerk Kevin Harris read a letter submitted by the FMBA unions.

“President Collum wants to frame this as a new and COVID-related issue, and it is not,” the letter read. “The staffing levels at the fire department have been dangerously low for the entirety of President Collum’s tenure. Members of the negotiating committee have begged for years just to have retiring firefighters replaced to merely maintain staffing levels set by the Board of Trustees. This understaffing has both a severely detrimental effect on the residents and particularly the firefighters. One doesn’t purposefully short-staff a department, putting its members at a health risk during a great economy, then threaten them with pay freezes and more layoffs when a crisis hits, if they appreciate and support them.”

In response, Collum said the village asked all employees to accept the pay freeze, which runs through 2022. Two public safety unions, the police Superior Officers Association and the Teamsters Union, accepted. FMBA locals 40 and 240 and PBA Local 12 did not.

“We don’t make up numbers,” she said, addressing the fire union’s assertion that there will not be an economic downturn that will affect the budget as a result of COVID-19. “We have to rely on our administrator, we have to rely on our professional staff, our CFO, our department heads on where these deficits are coming from. We have to make policy decisions based off of that information. The policy decision of the board was to ask everyone to share in some level of sacrifice.”

Collum described the necessary cuts to the capital budget, which included the capital improvements budget, using $1.5 million in fund balance and eliminating planned hires. Trustee Walter Clarke also described the changes the budget went through before it was passed.

“The difference between the budget we had intended to pass and the number of hires included in it, including fire department and police, and the budget we had to go to is significant,” he said. “None of us were delighted by it. We clearly all would have wanted to have many more things in it, including new hires, but that just isn’t the case post-COVID. I hope the moves we made end up looking wildly conservative, I really do. That would be great if the economy were able to rebound. But we were trying to make the best decision we could with the information we had at the time we had it.”

When Cummins spoke during public comment, he said the firefighters unions believe it is too early to predict the economic impact from COVID-19.

“We think that the ask has been premature based on the COVID-19 outbreak, to give back a collectively negotiated pay raise and suspend negotiations through 2022 before we know how this is going to play out,” Cummins said. “Just in the budget workshop paperwork that was put forward, there were drastic cuts in building fees, court costs, fines and recreation, including the pool, which is a big thing, apparently. We don’t think those things are ever going to materialize, and it can easily be made up of the $238,000 that was supposed to be taken from all of the employees of the village. Why not let things play out and see where we end up with COVID?”

He said that firefighters do not get Social Security, and their retirement pension is not adjusted for the rising cost of living.

“I don’t think any of you guys would take it very lightly if you were asked to take a several-thousand-dollar cut to your Social Security with no cost-of-living adjustment,” Cummins continued. “We don’t see why we should take a preemptive step that lasts that far into the future.”

In response, Collum said the village did not want the pay freeze to affect anyone retroactively.

“The same thing could be accomplished by going to every employee and saying, ‘Take a 5-percent cut,’” she said. “The Board of Trustees in good faith, or at least we thought it was in good faith, did not want to ask anyone to give up something they were already given or was agreed to by the village. If we get in a situation with our fund balance and with revenue that’s untenable, we won’t be able to pay our bills. This needs to be balanced against how much we can raise taxes on our taxpayers. This would never have been under any type of consideration if we didn’t find ourselves where we are today. We had a choice to be proactive and address this now or get into a really bad place where we would be doing what’s considered emergency transfers that would have to be levied in 2021.”

Collum and Cummins talked about staffing and hiring as well, until township attorney Clyde Otis said that the conversation was steering away from public comment and too close to negotiations.

In an email on June 15, FMBA locals 40 and 240 spokesman Steve Lenox said there was no update to provide. PBA Local 40, the police officers’ union, deferred comment to New Jersey State PBA President Patrick Colligan in an email on June 12.