Towns study shorter work week to save

by Alexi Friedman/The Star-Ledger

Wednesday July 09, 2008, 9:34 PM

Gloucester Township did it. Irvington is considering it. And Fanwood and Long Hill are researching the idea.

With fuel and energy prices rising and state aid falling, municipalities around New Jersey are finding new ways to pinch pennies. One of the latest: four-day work weeks for public employees.

Shutting down nonessential government services for one day a week, the theory goes, would reduce heating and cooling bills for the city, along with commuting costs for workers, who would get three-day weekends, squeezing 40 hours into four days. The move would not include emergency personnel.

The goal is to save taxpayers money without drastically reducing services, officials said.

For Cindy Rau-Hatton, mayor of Gloucester Township in Camden County, switching to a Monday to Thursday schedule means saving about $30,000 a year in energy, fuel and water bills.

"It's trying to do more with less by maximizing our resources," she said of the new schedule, which took effect June 30.

Gloucester's employees already were on a four-day schedule, the mayor said, though offices remained open every weekday. Closing Fridays will bulk up staffing levels, which had thinned because of employee sick days and vacations. So far, she said, reaction has been positive.

Gloucester, with a population of 65,000, may be the only municipality in New Jersey to have a four-day work week, but it's nothing new for the township, which had that schedule in the 1980s, after the energy crisis. It switched back to five days in 1995, the mayor said.

Now, with Gloucester paying 26 percent more for gasoline than last year, and with dramatically reduced state aid for the budget, Rau-Hatton said the change was necessary.

While closing up shop for a day may work for individual municipalities, the move becomes more difficult for county governments, said Warren County administrator Steve Marvin.

Because counties provide direct support to the courts and welfare offices, eliminating a day isn't so simple, he said. "Any serious examination probably ought to start at the top, like they did in Utah."

Next month, Utah will become the first state in the nation to mandate a four-day work week for most of its government employees, closing on Fridays to save energy and fuel.

Closer to home, the Atlantic County clerk's office will in fact rotate employees on a four-day schedule, though the office will remain open Monday to Friday.

County Executive Dennis Levinson opposes the month-long pilot program -- it began this week -- which is aimed at saving employees pain at the pump.

"Our first and foremost obligation is to serve the public," Levinson said. "That's what government does. The public doesn't serve government."

County Clerk Edward McGettigan, who instituted the voluntary program, said office hours wouldn't be reduced. "We're trying to help our employees to fight these rising gasoline costs. It's a logical way to give them relief."

Whether the town is large or small, moving to a four-day work week "requires a really massive undertaking," said William Dressel, executive director for the New Jersey League of Municipalities. "It isn't a panacea for dealing with our fiscal woes on a local level, but certainly it's a real attempt to try to provide services and reduce the bottom line on property tax dollars."

One community that won't be switching is Washington Township in Gloucester County. Mayor Paul Moriarty believes the abbreviated schedule "sends a bad message. If residents are working five days, we should be working five days," he said.

But in Long Hill, energy costs have become "outrageous," Mayor George Vitureira said, estimating the township could save more than $1,000 a month in electricity by eliminating a work day. The Morris County municipality is studying the issues, as is Irvington and Fanwood.

Ron Gedman, who owns Panettones Deli in Fanwood, said he wouldn't mind if local government offices closed on Fridays because he takes care of any borough business early in the week. The mayor, Gedman said, has to do "what she's gotta do to save money. If that's the decision, I'll support it."

Staff writers Mariam Jukaku, Leslie Kwoh, Nyier Abdou and Lawrence Ragonese contributed to this report.

Read the article.