In a move protested by city employees and two members of the governing body, the City Council voted 6-2 at their Wednesday meeting to introduce an ordinance abolishing the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW) and putting those jobs under the purview of the autonomous Incinerator Authority (JCIA) by February.
Public Works, currently with 308 employees, is responsible for maintenance and repair of city-owned buildings, parks and vehicles. The Incinerator Authority is responsible curbside trash and recycling collection as well as graffiti and snow removal. The authority is also independent of city oversight, has its own ability to issue bonds, and its employees are not protected by Civil Service regulations.
The attorney the council hired to defend the merger told them six months ago to merge the JCIA into the DPW and save $10 million.
Healy also said the reason for folding Public Works into the JCIA rather than vice versa was so the city would not be bound by the “labyrinthian” regulations of civil service that limits what jobs employees can perform if they remain DPW employees. Also, if the merger called for the JCIA to be placed under the DPW, employees would have to receive a year’s notice before they are laid off.
“We don’t have the luxury of that time. We have to do this now,” said Healy, who said in a recent op-ed piece in a local newspaper that this merger has been under study since 2007.
City employees boo the council
Nearly 100 Public Works employees at the back of the council chambers booed council members who voted to introduce the ordinance. Some held signs in protest.
One Public Works employee with 20 years of experience told a reporter he was concerned that if he kept his job he expected to see a pay cut, but if did not keep his job, he was worried about “paying the bills” and putting his son through college.
Among the six who voted to introduce was Councilman Bill Gaughan, who after being booed for his vote, told the workers the demonstration didn’t “help their cause.” Then he said when the ordinance returns at the next council meeting, he hopes changes will be made to make sure that not as many layoffs would occur.
City Council President Peter Brennan when he voted for introduction called for elimination of a few top-salary jobs before merging Public Works and the DPW.
Two dissenting votes
City Councilman Steven Fulop, a constant critic of Healy’s policies and an announced candidate for the mayoralty in 2013, sparred with Healy on Monday over the move and questioned why the Public Works department couldn’t stay intact and the JCIA not be abolished. Fulop said the administration wants to maintain the JCIA for patronage, since the JCIA is not under city oversight and Public Works employees would not enjoy the same kind of civil service protection.
Fulop predicted that laid-off employees would be rehired by the JCIA based on political whim and not on performance, overseen by JCIA Executive Director Oren Dabney and current Public Works director Rodney Hadley, who would become Deputy Executive Director under Dabney if the merger happens.
“They will sit there and pick which employees they like, and which employees they don’t like,” said Fulop at Monday’s caucus. Fulop was criticized by Healy and several council members for his comments.
Fulop pointed out before his vote Wednesday that he saw many employees in the chambers “scared for their livelihoods.”
Before Wednesday’s meeting, he gave the Jersey City Reporter another reason for his opposition in the form of a “consolidation report” and an executive summary, both written by attorney Eric Bernstein in the late spring/early summer. The report recommends the opposite action that the council and mayor have taken, a merger of the JCIA into the DPW, which Bernstein said would save the city $10.5 million, more than twice the savings Healy cited.
As stated in the report, “aside from significant cost, asset and property savings, consolidation of the JCIA into the DPW would result in higher efficiency and better service for the City and its citizens.”
Nevertheless, the council also approved two resolutions retaining the services of Bernstein to deal with litigation that arises from the merger.
Lopez: it’s unfair
The second “no” vote came from Nidia Lopez, who called the move by the city “unfair” and “disrespectful” to Public Works employees, especially the ones who have worked over 20 years and could see their pensions impacted by losing their jobs.
“I am concerned about the people that it’s going to affect,” said Lopez, who received loud applause after her vote.
The ordinance will be up for a second reading and a final vote at the next council meeting on Nov. 23 at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 280 Grove St.
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.