New Jersey’s plan to slash Atlantic City’s fire department by 50 members was blocked by a Superior Court judge Friday.

The state had sought to cut the fire department staff from 198 to 148 as a cost-saving measure since taking over Atlantic City finances last November. Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez ruled Friday that the state’s proposal would “cause irreparable harm” and comprise public safety if implemented.

Atlantic City, N.J. has been cash strapped in recent years in the wake of casino closures and a declining tax base.
Atlantic City, N.J. has been cash strapped in recent years in the wake of casino closures and a declining tax base. Bloomberg News

“Judge Mendez rightfully saw through the draconian attempts by the State of New Jersey to unlawfully decimate our fire department," Atlantic City Mayor Donald Guardian said in a statement. “We had been arguing for months that to have the right number of firefighters dispersed throughout the City ensures a proper response time to any emergency calls we may receive.”

The fight on firefighter cuts was the first legal showdown under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act legislation for Atlantic City approved by New Jersey lawmakers last year that enables the state to alter outstanding municipal contracts. Moody’s Investors Service said in a February report that the firefighters’ court challenge could pave the way for other unions to challenge staffing cuts. The state initially aimed for 100 firefighter cuts, before Judge Mendez issued a temporary restraining order in February

The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which is overseeing the state takeover of Atlantic City, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday’s ruling. The DCA has touted progress achieved this year from state intervention, including adopting a $206.3 million budget that is $56 million less than 2015 while achieving other savings from staff adjustments and outsourcing certain municipal services.

Atlantic City, which is saddled with $224 million in bonded debt, has deep junk-level credit ratings of CC by S&P Global Ratings and Caa3 by Moody’s Investors Service. The city has sizable looming debt service payments including $6.1 million owed on Nov. 1, according to S&P.

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