JERSEY CITY - In a rare departure from standard practice, the New Jersey State Assembly Committee on Law and Public Safety held a hearing in Jersey City today and heard an earful from fire and law enforcement officials regarding the need for more state funding.
Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy, Police Chief Tom Comey, and Fire Chief Darren Rivers were among those who testified at length before the committee, which typically meets in Trenton. The men expressed frustration that Jersey City gets bypassed for state funding that would enable the city to hire more police and firefighters.
"Last year, due to negotiations between the city and our police union, we were able to avoid layoffs in our police department," Healy told the committee. "But state aid goes to those cities and departments that either have higher crime rates than we do, or that have had layoffs. We've been penalized for our success."
Last year Jersey City saved $3.4 million through a renegotiated labor agreement with the Police Officers Benevolent Association. The deal prevented the layoffs of 82 police officers. The city did, however, lay off at least civilian workers in the police department, which saved more than $276,000.
Chief Comey and Chief Rivers echoed many of Healy's comments.
"Cities that have laid off cops - Camden, Newark - are getting the first bite at the apple [when it comes to state aid for public safety personnel]," Comey told the committee.
The Jersey City Police Department currently has about 802 members. Several officers who are eligible for retirement, Comey testified before the committee, have either already filed their paperwork for retirement or have said they planned to do so soon. Comey said it is possible the Jersey City police force could dip below 800 officers. Approximately 185 Jersey City police officers are eligible to retire by July 2013.
"There comes a time when we have to say smaller doesn't mean better," he stated.
Chief Rivers told the committee that cuts to fire departments throughout the region has strained fire fighting efforts and mutual aid agreements among departments in Northern New Jersey.
Recalling the February fire that took place in Jersey City on Fairmont and Monticello avenues, Rivers said the Jersey City Fire Department called in the Hoboken Fire Department for mutual aid. The Hoboken firefighters, however, had to pull out when that city had a major fire of its own that had to be put out. Jersey City then called for mutual aid from the Newark Fire department to help with the Fairmont/Monticello incident.
Under mutual aid agreements municipal fire companies throughout a geographic region agree to assist one another should any one municipality have a major situation that requires additional personnel. Out-of-town fire departments could be asked to do anything from search and rescue at a fire scene to cover a second fire emergency that comes up. Rivers said fire departments throughout Northern New Jersey have been stretched so thin that mutual aid is requested more frequently than it was in the past.
In response to a question from committee member Assemblyman Jason O'Donnell (31st Dist.-Bayonne) Rivers said the Jersey City Fire Department had approximately 150 fires in 2011 that required mutual aid.
Rivers called the Jersey City Fire Department "equipment rich, but manpower poor."
Both the Jersey City Fire Department and the Jersey City Police Department have in recent years received federal grants to purchase equipment. Healy, Comey, and Rivers said this equipment is nearly meaningless without the personnel needed to operate it.
Crime and public safety have been front burner issues since the beginning of the year when a spate of crimes and two major fires took place in the city.
The Assembly Committee on Law and Public Safety includes three legislators from Hudson County: O'Donnell, Sean Connors (33rd Dist.-Jersey City), and chairman Charles Mainor (31st Dist.-Jersey City). - E. Assata Wright