From all ends of the Garden State, police officers, firefighters, corrections officers and EMTs descended on the state capitol Thursday afternoon to let Gov. Chris Christie that they wanted him to protect their jobs so that they could keep protecting the public.
The noontime “Rally for Public Safety” drew an estimated 15,000 protestors to Trenton. Most were retired or off-duty first responders.
They are upset that budget cuts have thinned the ranks to what protestors call unsafe levels.
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Public safety workers also object to proposals by the republican governor and Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney to make them work longer before retiring and significantly raise their contributions for health benefits. The crowd chanted for Sweeney, a Democrat, throughout the rally.
“Traditionally, police officers and firefighters do not rally,” said Bill Lavin, an Elizabeth firefighter and president of the Firemen's Mutual Benevolent Association, representing 5,500 full-time firefighters. “This today is an emergency response.”
Christie, who scheduled a news conference inside the Statehouse for the same time as the rally, called the demonstration a selfish act and said it would have “an absolutely zero” effect on his decisions.
This is a “me-first rally,” Christie said. “Pay me first. Give me my pension first. Give me my health benefits first. Give me my high salary first.”
“They can have their fun today, that's fine. It doesn't change the numbers,” Christie said.
The pension fund for police and firefighters, teachers, state, county and local government workers and judges is underfunded by $54 billion. The health care system for workers and retirees is underfunded by $67 billion. Christie says both systems will go belly-up without changes and argues that to save them, he is seeking a greater contribution from workers.
“Public employees are being portrayed by (the Christie administration) as the bad guys, the people at fault here, but that's not correct,” said Sgt. William Nunn, a corrections officer who was at the rally. “If the state had properly funded the pension system over the years instead of taking money out, there wouldn't be a crisis. We call on them to put back the money they took out, to fulfill the promises they made to us.”
Police Benevolent Association spokesman Jim Ryan says 3,200 fewer officers are on the streets than a year ago because of layoffs and positions left unfilled. Cities like Camden and Newark have laid off significant numbers of officers to balance their budgets.
Ryan said crime is up for the first time in four years statewide, and more public safety workers are filing for retirement to beat changes that would make pension and health benefits less generous. The stage was flanked with pairs of empty firefighters boots to symbolize the number of unfilled positions.
Christie said he would prefer to negotiate statewide contracts for police, firefighter and teachers rather than town-by-town agreements that are bargained now.
The rally was the second Statehouse demonstration in a week by government workers. The AFL-CIO sponsored a unity rally Friday for Wisconsin public employees who are fighting a move to end their collective bargaining rights.
Democrats in the Legislature lined up to speak at Thursday's event.
Senate Democratic Leader Barbara Buono recalled the legions of police and firefighters who rushed into burning World Trade Center buildings on Sept. 11, 2001.
“You are our finest and our most selfless public workers,” she told the crowd. She and more than a dozen Democrats in the Senate and Assembly pledged their support to the crowd.
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