The standing-room crowd watches a power-point presentation on the merger proposal; Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, left, who initiated the idea, addresses the crowd, and Fair Haven Police Chief Darryl Breckenridge listens.
Elected officials exploring the idea of merging the police departments of Fair Haven, Little Silver and Rumson got off with a series of stern warnings from their constituents last night.
A crowd of about 150 squeezed into Little Silver’s borough hall to demand that the mayors of the three towns provide greater transparency on the process and hold a referendum before consolidating the three departments, which now employ a combined 46 officers.
And in a public display of dissent that’s rare for the three cozy bedroom communities, the police chiefs of all three departments said that even a take-it-slow approach proposed to test a possible merger would hamper their ability to provide adequate coverage of their towns.
“We would lose manpower” even in the first phase of the plan, under which existing, informal sharing of police resources would be fomalized, Little Silver Chief Shannon Giblin told redbankgreen at the conclusion of the two-hour meeting.
Giblin, like a number of residents who spoke, complained about a lack of information and input, saying the three chiefs had been invited to just two meetings on the topic in the past 18 months and that their officers had been inadequately sampled for ideas.
A regionalization, were one to take place, could be history-making. No three towns in New Jersey have ever combined their police forces in a merger-of-equals arrangement before, according to Brian Valentino of Patriot Consulting Group, a governmental services advisory firm. Patriot’s services were 90 percent paid for under a $25,000 state grant, said Rumson Mayor John Ekdahl.
But a merger is not inevitable, backers of the exploratory process claim. State Assemblyman (and former Little Silver councilmember) Declan O’Scanlon, who initiated the merger talks with a call to Ekdahl two years ago, said the the issue is being studied in phases, and was structured so that at any point shy of an actual merger, preliminary steps toward a consolidation could be undone without undermining the three departments.
In a press conference held shortly before last night’s meeting, O’Scanlon and Ekdahl said that a budgetary squeeze driven by mandates from Trenton and soaring healthcare costs made it imperative that towns begin to move toward shared services.
“People are clamoring for us to do more with less, to work more efficiently,” O’Scanlon said.
He said that the two controlling criteria of the process would be that, in the end, police services be as good or better than they are now, and that there be no layoffs in any of the three departments, which now employ 46 officers and spend a combined $6.85 million on police salaries and benefits a year.
Valentino, who Ekdahl said would complete a report on the proposal in three or four weeks, outlined the rationale for a consolidation: the similarities among the three towns in terms of geography, population, police culture and other variables. Yet he stopped short of recommending a merger be green-lighted now because of the way the three towns classify crime data.
A key element of the first phase of the process will be to make those systems uniform, he said, so that the governing bodies of the three towns can weigh the how resources might be allocated among the towns.
Because of that absence of uniform data, Valentino said he was unable to project how staffing might be affected under a merger, and thus, could not estimate how much money might be saved.
But that absence of data was a flashpoint for some of those who filled the 100-person-capacity meeting room last night. They expressed concerns that the police services they now receive could be degraded by a merger whose financial benefits, if any, are unknown.
There was also distrust that the plan would have the intended effect. Former Rumson Mayor Charles ‘Chili’ Callman, Ekdahl’s predecessor, said that when regionalization of the high school for Rumson and Fair Haven was proposed, the costs were to be apportioned on a ‘fair share’ basis. “Then the state stepped in and said, ‘you can’t do that,'” and have to do it instead on the basis of assessed property values, Callman said. That “ended up with Rumson paying 70 percent of the costs.”
O’Scanlon said he had already won assurances from the Corzine administration that no such surprises would be foisted on the towns should the merger proceed.
Others in attendance expressed concerns about the effect of a merger on police and public safety. “What about that officer who needs backup for his safety” when the few other officers on duty at the time are far away, one man asked. “You’re taking one of the most stressful jobs in the world and making it worse.”
Still others complained about what they said was a lack of information regarding both the plan and last night’s meeting, and insisted on better communication. One man said he’d gotten more information about Rumson’s new borough hall from the town than he did about the police merger, a topic he considered far more important.
“We need assurances that everything, as each phase goes, will be disclosed to the public,” said Elaine Campanella of Rumson.
A number of speakers called for the matter to be put up as referenda on ballots in each town.
If the plan is to move ahead, it may have to do so without the support of the officials who will have to make it work: the chiefs, who in this case appear to have the local Police Benevolent Association shops behind them.
“We’re against it,” said Fair Haven Chief Darryl Breckenridge, “and we will be to the end.”[UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: Breckenridge tells redbankgreen that his comment above applies solely to the phase one aspect of the plan that requires sharing of manpower, not the overall goal of regionalization, which he supports.
Having to dedicate officers to shared detective, youth services and traffic, as called for in the proposal, would blow a huge hole in his staffing schedule, Breckenridge said. “I would have to give up three people,” he said.”We would not be able to cover the roads.”]
Here’s an executive summary of the report that Valentino is expected to produce: Download executive_summary_two_river_police_study_group.doc