SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Village President Sheena Collum has responded to the open letters from the state police and fire unions released earlier today, in an email to union representatives at the state and local level and the Village Board of Trustees:

I offered to Firefighter [James “Jimmy”] Jennings [president of South Orange FMBA Local 40] that I would be available to speak to anyone in FD regarding our budget. To date, no one has responded. To my knowledge, our labor counsel has spoken with the union attorneys and that is how that process has worked. We have utilized the max of our fund balance per policy, applied and diverted all new revenue to fill the gap, and cut a series of programs and positions to benefit our residents. In addition to that, we also raised taxes on our community — higher than at least the past 10 years (maybe more) from the municipal portion.

The fire contract was settled some time ago and any request was not retro so there would be parity among all employees to be fair. 

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“Respectfully, we did what we thought would keep everyone employed without uncertainty.”

Regarding Police Department discipline, as everyone on this email is aware, local elected officials are not involved with the disciplinary actions of officers. That is run by the Internal Affairs Bureau within our police department. The recent video release of an officer involved with a force incident dates back to January of this year. It has no correlation to the pay raise freeze request. That was a commitment we made to our community about transparency.

I, too, signed the letter (like police and fire state unions) about borrowing and more importantly, general aid to NJ for losses in revenue. But I’m sure you can appreciate that we don’t have the ability to wait nor has the federal government indicated that may be the case. Additionally, it is not clear to me under Governor Murphy’s proposal whether bonding for operating costs throughout the state would include these types of expenditures. I just don’t know the answer to that.

As has already been stated by the Governor, over 200k public employees could be impacted in New Jersey. This would be tragic and heartbreaking for so many on top of the record number of private sector job losses.

Respectfully, we did what we thought would keep everyone employed without uncertainty about jobs and positions, something that not only was balked at by the state fire and police unions, but marketed as “anti public safety” when it was anything but that. My position, that I know is shared by my colleagues, has been we do whatever it takes to ensure continued employment of all employees. I wish that goal could be shared among everyone whether or not they have a union. It was, to me, heartbreaking to learn that during these discussions, some individuals within police and fire unions offered up other people’s jobs, even going as far to say that we don’t need a public library. Our South Orange Performing Arts Center was also offered, but the majority of those employees were already furloughed by SOPAC and the future of its operations will also rely greatly on donor support as well as state and federal aid. It’s all painful right now to everyone and we’re all really trying our best. 

The reality in our community is we care very much about all of our employees, especially public safety. But our role has to be balanced against all the needs and services for everyone and put that up against how much more our taxpayers can realistically take. For many of us on the governing body, we’ve been trying to help our residents get their unemployment benefits and in some cases, get the basic necessities of living through this.

Requesting a freeze on pay raises during this time seemed reasonable and compassionate. I know we will have to disagree about that but hopefully I, and the Board of Trustees, have made that clear. 

Regardless of the combative nature of these letters/press releases, I still (and we still) remain grateful to all first responders in addition to our healthcare workers and essential employees. This is certainly a true test of how everyone can try to come together and get through this. I encourage you to look at our town closely and see the amazing efforts of volunteerism, donations and kindness occurring. It has been truly amazing to watch how individuals and families are going above and beyond to help and support each other.

 

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