East Greenwich layoffs take a personal turn

Posted: January 24, 2013

The painful $600,000 budget shortfall facing East Greenwich Township is hardly unique. Municipalities across New Jersey are grappling with dwindling support from the state and other dried-up sources of revenue.

But the budget crisis in the small Gloucester County town has become distinct for the intensely personal turn it has taken.

The spark was set by the controversial layoffs of a part-time police officer and a part-time civilian employee this month that critics said were surreptitiously engineered by the mayor. The layoffs were reversed Tuesday by the township committee.

The results: accusations of unethical behavior, distrust, visible animosity among committee members, and uncertainty among police officers about how many of them will have jobs in February, when the budget is introduced.

The officer let go by Mayor Fred Grant had helped arrest him in July on drunken-driving and speeding charges.

While Grant said his decision was motivated only by budgetary concerns, some committee members said they were not aware he had removed the two names from the annual reappointment list.

Sam Giordano, who like Grant is a member of the Democratic majority on the five-person committee, said removing the names from the list without informing all of the committee before they voted on it showed a "lack of integrity."

"This was someone saying, 'This is what I'm going to do, and the heck with the rest of them,' " Giordano said.

William Bumbernick, a former committeeman, told the body Tuesday that "removing positions from the resolution is something I've never seen."

The reinstatement may be more symbolic than anything else. Police Chief Barry Jenkins said the two employees will likely be laid off in the near future because of budget cuts.

The township, whose 2012 budget was $7 million, has asked each department to cut 20 percent of its spending plan for this year - and that number might increase.

Between 2007 and 2012, revenue from construction declined by nearly $250,000 as a result of the housing market crash. And the growth the town maintained in the first couple of years after the recession has come to a halt.

"In a town like that, that was experiencing fairly rapid growth and then experienced an economic collapse, numbers like that are reasonable," said Jon Moran, senior legislative analyst for the New Jersey League of Municipalities, referring to the total budget shortfall.

The police department says it has not determined where it will make cuts because it has not yet been advised by the town's chief financial officer.

Grant said the department may need to slash its budget by $470,000. He said only part of the township's budget is open to trimming, and the department constitutes about 70 percent of that amount.

"What's hit other towns three or four years ago, we're getting hit with now," he said in an interview.

Jenkins agreed cuts need to be made. But he and others said the mayor should have been transparent about his decision to remove the officer, Gerald Hall, and a clerk from the reappointment list.

"For [Jenkins] not to be told one of his officers . . . was going to be removed from the budget is unbelievable," police union attorney John Eastlack told the committee Tuesday. Saying the names were removed in a "clandestine, surreptitious" way, he added: "It smacks of retaliation toward the police department."

Grant responded to criticism from the committee by saying, "If I didn't communicate, I apologize." The emotionally charged meeting had residents demanding that committeemen give up their stipends to help solve the budget woes.

Neither Jenkins nor the employees were told of the layoffs until they showed up to work on the Monday following the Saturday, Jan. 5, reorganization meeting.

Now the two part-time employees, and a full-time officer next in line for a layoff, remain in limbo.

"My biggest thing and biggest disappointment was: If they were going to lay me off, I just wanted it to be done properly," Hall, who is also a firefighter in Camden, said in an interview. "Give me a little bit of notice." He said he would accept the reinstatement but "I don't know where it's going to go from there."

He has retained an attorney.


Contact Andrew Seidman at 856-779-3846, aseidman@phillynews.com or @AndrewSeidman on Twitter.

 

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