PATERSON, NJ - In their efforts to solve the city's budget crisis, municipal officials have run into a wall seeking salary concessions from Paterson's largest employee union - Policemen's Benevolent Association, Local #1 - making police layoffs almost a certainty.
At the end of negotiations on January 5, union leaders decided not to hold any additional discussions with the city until after an arbitrator issues a decision on the PBA's contract, which expired two-and-a-half years ago.
 
"It's hard to negotiate, when you don't know what you're getting," in the new contract, said Steve Olimpio, the PBA president. "As president, I need to sit back and see what the results are (from the arbitrator), and then go from there.'' Officials said they were not sure exactly when the arbitrator might issue a decision.
 

City business administrator Charles Thomas expressed disappoint in the union's position. "We were asking them for concessions to try to avoid layoffs,'' Thomas said. "We're going to have to do what we have to do.''
 
Olimpio said Mayor Jeffrey Jones' administration is considering laying off 150 of the city's 496 police officers and demoting another 51 officers. Those layoffs would cut $8 million from the payroll, Olimpio said. Thomas said the numbers have not been finalized yet, but he described Olimpio's figures as being "in the ballpark."
 
Thomas said the city is continuing negotiations with the leaders of its 16 other labor unions in an effort to get concessions from them that would avert layoffs in other departments. "They're all still at the table,'' Thomas said.
 
Paterson's 2011 budget has a shortfall of about $54 million, a gap that threatens to hit homeowners with a tax increase that could average close to $2,000. Tax bills that will sent out later this month already will include a fraction of the increase - a little more than four-percent - officials said. The extra money anticipated from those bills already has been used to cut the projected shortfall down to $54 million.
 
"If we laid off every non-uniformed employee in the city, that's still not going to solve it,'' said Councilman Kenneth Morris, chairman of the finance committee. "Do I want to see 150 police officers laid off? Absolutely not. Do I want to see fire personnel laid off? Absolutely not. It becomes a balancing act. Folks have to be willing to accept some cuts.''
 
Council President Aslon Goow Sr. said too much emphasis has been placed on police layoffs. He said the city also ought to consider making cuts in the fire department. In addition, Goow said, the city should weigh requiring new employees to pay a share of their benefits and eliminating city parades to trim the budget.
 
If the city cut its police payroll by $8 million through layoffs, only a fraction of that money would help balance this year's budget because so much of the fiscal year already has passed. The city would have to issue 45-notices before terminating any workers, so the earliest the layoffs could happen would be about two-thirds of the way into the fiscal year. Instead of cutting $8 million from the 2011 budget, the layoffs - if triggered almost immediately - would produce about $2.7 million in initial savings.
 
But, the city also would have to pay the officers' unemployment benefits because it uses a self-insurance program, officials said. That would knock the savings down below $2 million.
 
"If you took 150 cops away from the city, you're going to do some real damage,'' Olimpio said. "You're talking about a third of the police force. That's a major hit.''
 
In the past month, the police department - with an annual payroll of about $51.2 million - has become a target of city officials looking for ways to avoid a staggering tax increase. Olimpio said his union is trying to work with city officials in their crisis. "We want to keep the lines of communication open,'' he said.
 
The PBA already has balked at the city's request that police accept 10 non-paid furlough days, something that is being required of other city employees. Olimpio said police furloughs would save the city about $1.6 million.
 
"When you have a shortfall of $50 million, what's $1.6 million going to do?'' the PBA president said.
 
Thomas said he would provide the city council with an update on the budget situation at its workshop meeting on January 11. Morris said he was frustrated by the Jones' administration's lack of solutions for the budget crisis.
 
"It's not a problem, that if you ignore it, it's going to go away,'' said Morris. "I'm tired of the rhetoric and I'm tired of the verbal dancing. That no longer works for me, and that no longer works for the Paterson taxpayers.''