2 efforts to bring back laid-off Camden cops fail

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CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — Two efforts to reverse some of the stunning police layoffs in one of America’s most dangerous cities failed Wednesday.

A judge ruled that he won’t force Camden to bring back 167 police officers who were laid off earlier in the week. Later, a union for most of the officers rejected a deal containing concessions, which would have put the majority of them back to work.

The layoffs reduced the size of the police force by nearly half in one of the nation’s most impoverished and crime-ridden cities. Some civilian employees such as dispatchers also were laid off, along with about one-third of the city’s firefighters.

Altogether, more than 15 percent of Camden’s municipal workers, including 68 firefighters and about 100 civilians, were laid off as the city tries to fill a huge budget gap brought on by rising costs, decreased tax revenues and diminished aid from the state.

In an evening vote, the city chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police rejected a deal that would have reinstated officers in exchange for giving them unpaid furlough days.

F.O.P. Local 1 President John Williamson said the vote was 300-1 against the measure.

Mayor Dana Redd and Williamson both said about 100 officers could have been brought back under the deal. Williamson said the agreement called for three days a month of unpaid furloughs for patrol officers for six months, then one furlough day in each of the following 12 months.

Williamson said the mayor’s words during a news conference Tuesday were a factor in the vote. She said the average rank-and-file officer has a salary and benefits worth $140,000 a year — a number the union disputes. Williamson said the salary of an officer is about $77,000 and the benefits are not as generous as the mayor said.

Police union officials say Camden officers don’t make as much as those in most nearby suburban towns, even though the work is more dangerous.

“People were angry. People were upset. Some of the comments that the mayor has made about the police department, about officers, about the union itself, the people don’t like it,” Williamson said. “They watch the news, too.”

Redd said in a statement Wednesday that she was disappointed with the union. “This offer not only would have saved approximately 100 police jobs, it would have demonstrated their commitment to the residents of Camden,” she said.

Earlier in the day, unions for both rank-and-file officers and their superiors argued in court that the state Civil Service Commission did not take the right steps when it approved the layoffs. They also claimed the city laid off more officers than it originally planned.

The city disputes those claims. It does not dispute, however, that some officers didn’t get notice of their layoffs 45 days in advance.

Superior Court Judge Francis Orlando ruled that the proper place for the complaints is with the Civil Service Commission or an appeals court — not his court.

Cheryl Cooper, a lawyer for the unions, said she would likely go to a higher court with the case.

Redd has said she has a total of $5.5 million from a rent payment from the South Jersey Port Authority and in extra aid from the state that could be used to bring back some laid-off workers. But she said she wanted four police and fire unions to agree to $2 million each in concessions first.

Meanwhile, Al Ashley, president of the Camden Fire Officers union, said it didn’t take long to begin to feel the strain of the depleted force.

He said that Tuesday morning, as laid-off firefighters were preparing to return their gear, there was a minor fire in a high-rise apartment building.

All 26 firefighters on duty in the city responded, he said. According to guidelines, two additional companies — or eight troops — should have been there, too.

Before the layoffs, Ashley said, about 44 firefighters would have been on duty.

At about the same time, there were two more calls from fire alarms. Neither amounted to much, he said, but it was up to volunteer companies from neighboring towns to respond. He said that’s likely to become the norm now.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.