SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Village President Sheena Collum and firefighters’ union representative Michael Cummins spoke live on the streaming meeting during the public speaks portion of the meeting.
Village Clerk Kevin Harris read a letter from the membership of New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association Locals 40 and 240 about the ongoing budget situation, wherein both firefighters’ unions and one police union have not agreed to a 2 percent pay freeze for the next two years and the Board of Trustees has moved forward with plans to apply to Civil Service for furloughs and demotions to make up the savings for the 2020 and 2021 budgets.
The letter responded to points Collum has made in the public discourse surrounding the standoff, including the paragraph,
“President Collum also wants to frame this as a new and COVID-19 related issue and it is not. The staffing levels at the Fire Department have been dangerously low for the entirety of President Colum’s tenure. Members of the negotiating committees have begged for years just to have retiring firefighters replaced to merely maintain staffing levels previously set by the Board of Trustees. Ms. Collum has recently adopted a “blame Civil Service” excuse for the lack of hiring. This is patently untrue and can be easily proven so if President Collum wishes to continue to push this narrative. A new list of young Villagers came out in March of 2019, during a great economy a year before COVID-19, and no one has been hired. This understaffing has a severely detrimental effect on both the residents and particularly the Firefighters.”
Deputy Chief Cummins, who is the union representative, then was patched into the live feed after Collum stated, “I’d like to understand what their position is.” He and Collum spoke respectfully about the differences in their positions.
“We think that the ask is premature based on the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Cummins. He said he felt that the projected losses due to coronavirus shutdowns may not materialize. He also stated that the 2 percent freeze has more impact on the firefighters in the long term, because of compounding. “This is really serious stuff for us, this is our base pay. We don’t get Social Security. Our pension is based on our base pay and that’s all we have… 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. Our pension doesn’t have a cost of living adjustment.”
He was also concerned that the ask went beyond the current contract period, and wished to negotiate 2022 at that time. “We don’t see why we should take a preemptive step that lasts that far into the future,” Cummins said.
Saying that the ask was made with “the best of intentions,” Collum noted that “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.” She said the Village is already “applying the max amount of our fund balance into our budget, which is $1.5 million.” She also noted that she “worked hard” to have the proceeds of the sale of a property, $1.2 million, applied to the 2020 budget “so that it wouldn’t be more severe.”
“This needs to be balanced against ‘how much can we raise taxes on our taxpayers?’ It’s a very tough place for all of us to be in, doing this balancing act,” Collum said.
The two spoke for about 20 minutes, touching on subjects such as fire department staffing/hiring, until the town attorney said they were veering away from public comment. Collum asked Cummings to get in touch with Village Administrator Adam Loehner; “We’d very much appreciate any future continued dialogue on this… we do hope we can end up somewhere positive.”
Later in the meeting, the 2020 budget was passed with no comment from residents during its public hearing.
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