South Orange Fire Unions Oppose Pay Freeze, Accuse Trustees of Understaffing

by Colleen Falconer
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At a virtual meeting of the South Orange Board of Trustees on June 8, representatives from the South Orange Fire Department once again raised objections to the Board’s proposed 2-year pay freeze in response to revenue losses due to COVID-19.

The 2% pay freeze in raises (promotion steps continue at a 2% reduction) would apply to all municipal employees and has been accepted by the Police Superior Officers Association and the Teamster local representing South Orange Department of Public Works workers. Township officials have argued that the “shared sacrifice” is necessary at a time when the COVID-19 has created a $1.5M revenue shortfall.

The New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association (FMBA) and the NJ Policemen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) and their local units have strongly opposed the salary freeze.

A new letter from South Orange FMBA locals 40/240, which was read during the Board’s Public Comment period on June 8, accused Village President Collum and the six-member Board of Trustees of “putting politics first.” (See the full letter below.) It also took issue with Collum’s assertion that the Fire Department’s contract was settled “some time ago.” The letter expressed that this was incorrect, and that the contract was only settled on April 16th. “This is not a new or COVID-related issue,” the unions maintained, citing understaffing and a lack of new hires since 2019. Village Administrator Adam Loehner later argued that the new contracts had been 90% negotiated by January.

The letter also asserted that Collum’s previous responses to their complaints “lacked sincerity”:

“We need President Collum and the Board of Trustees to support us, instead of just saying that they do.”

Collum responded that the proposed 2% pay freeze would be consistent among unionized and non-union employees, and noted the two unions that had already agreed to it. She also stated that the Board’s hiring choices come from fire chief recommendations. “This year’s budget had a lot of changes to it, including the pay freezes,” Collum explained. “When it comes to what approach we made…that comes back to our labor council.” 

Trustee Walter Clarke backed Collum, stating that he hoped the decisions the Board has made to create a budget with a minimum tax increase – the budget approved will result in an 2.72% increase in local residents’ municipal tax bills — “end up looking wildly conservative” once the economy recovers.

Later in the meeting, Deputy Fire Chief Michael Commins spoke at length during public comments — engaging in a back-and-forth that started to resemble a negotiation before counsel put an end to it.

“We don’t see why we should take a preemptive step that lasts that far into the future,” Commins said (the freeze extends to 2022), voicing more concerns about short-staffing, delayed hires and firefighter salary increases that he said had not kept up with the cost of living.

Collum answered that the Board had decided on the freeze while assessing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the local economy through 2021. “We didn’t want it to retroactively affect any employees,” she told Deputy Chief Commins. “We had to either be proactive and address this now, or do emergency transfers that would have to be addressed in 2021.” She defended the Board’s consideration of keeping the tax impact to a minimum, noting that more than 1.1 million New Jersey residents are currently unemployed, and that federal funding may be hard to come by.

Commins said that staffing levels at the SOFD “never bounced back” after the last economic downturn in 2008. He also noted that, while taxes were high, South Orange is a relatively affluent town.

In response to charges that she had delayed hiring and promotions, Collum said she was “not aware of a time” when she or the Board had told the Township staff not to hire or promote employees. “I don’t believe I’ve ever said that in the history of ever,” she told Commins. A pre-COVID-19 budget had planned for adiitonal promotions, but Collum said that Fire Chief Sullivan called off a meeting with her and Trustee Donna Coallier, the Chair of the Public Safety Committee. 

Village Administrator Adam Loehner ascribed delays in promotions and hiring to the planned merger and joint meeting with the Maplewood Fire Department. The merger itself has seen numerous delays — from fall 2019, to January 2020, to April 2020 and now the COVID-19 crisis.

The Board of Trustees voted to adopt the budget, which included figures based on a 2% pay freeze.

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