By John Burton|
Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon believes real and substantial tax savings can be had by municipalities simply abandoning the old model of policing in favor of a shared services style.
Under his proposal, O’Scanlon says “outstanding” police services can be maintained, and property tax saving can be derived.
O’Scanlon, 53, is a Republican who has been in the Assembly since 2008. He represents the 13th Legislative District made up of municipalities from Monmouth County’s Bayshore area, from Aberdeen to Highlands, O’Scanlon’s hometown of Little Silver, Marlboro, Monmouth Beach, Oceanport, Rumson, Fair Haven and Sea Bright.
As initially outlined in an article he wrote for the October issue of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities’ magazine, O’Scanlon laid out his argument and is lobbying municipalities to consider it. He is recommending that municipalities, especially smaller ones, give serious thought to sharing police departments.
Municipalities could work out the arrangement between themselves and, as proposed by O’Scanlon, it wouldn’t require any new laws to allow for it to occur. This initiative would certainly save on police overtime costs, and maybe more importantly, O’Scanlon pointed out, towns wouldn’t have to lay off existing officers; the size of existing department could simply be allowed to shrink through attrition.
“Police are committed and loyal to their communities,” serving them for decades, the assemblyman said. “It’s the right thing for us to be just as dedicated to them.”
It would also provide other opportunities for police, allowing for expanded coverage areas and the opportunity to have more officers specialize in certain areas of law enforcement, he said.
In the final determination, O’Scanlon noted, it can be undone at any juncture by the participating towns and while sharing patrols, each town retains control over its own department. “So, sovereignty is addressed,” he said.
For many New Jersey municipalities, the police department is the largest line item in their annual budgets, as much as 20 percent of the total government expenditure. The cost of officers on average is $150,000-$184,000 annually, when factoring salaries and benefits. To properly staff a department for 24/7 coverage, no matter how small the town, the state Department of Community Affairs recommends the department has at least 13 officers. When calculating the savings over the long haul “the math is easy,” O’Scanlon said.
Traditionally consolidation is discussed in a couple of contexts and they have their inherent obstacles, just as public perceptions and collective bargaining agreements, O’Scanlon said. Either it’s about directly merging departments or a fee for service-type arrangement. Another alternative could be with towns forming a separate, independent policing entity. But that option can be complicated and would require endowing the new organization with a great deal of autonomy.
Merging departments has been difficult, as elected officials faced resistant community members and police. About 10 years ago, when O’Scanlon was serving on the Little Silver Borough Council, a study was under taken through a grant from the state Department of Community Affairs, looking at the feasibility of using one police department for Little Silver, Rumson and Fair Haven, and possibly another for Oceanport and Shrewsbury Borough. That initiative, however, went nowhere, as local officials faced staunch opposition from residents, police and their supporters.
But given the facts that increasing costs associated with maintaining police departments, and the limitations on local governments to keep within the 2 percent Trenton-mandated budget caps, it will become progressively difficult for municipalities to maintain the status quo on police levels and could mean eventual layoffs, O’Scanlon stressed. “It’s going to come,” he warned, “either in a planned way or it’s going to get messy.”
Just ask the people of Lake Como. O’Scanlon called it the “canary in a coal mine,” on this matter. That community last fall took the dramatic step of disbanding its own department, consisting of 10 officers, including a chief, and entered into a fee for services agreement with neighboring Belmar, for police coverage.
“The numbers were just insurmountable,” for Lake Como’s budget, Mayor Brian Wilton acknowledged. Crunching the numbers, the town could have laid off all of its employees, including the mayor and governing body, and it still wouldn’t have been enough in the budget to support the local department, Wilton explained. “It just got to the point, we literally couldn’t afford them anymore.”
Wilton believes “for really small towns like we are” – at roughly a 1⁄4-square mile – “it’s just inevitable,” to eventually have to adopt a sharing model or some other remedy to the current paradigm of individual departments, Wilton added.
“Any locally initiated effort in order to achieve cost savings is welcomed,” said Michael Cerra, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, an association that advocates for local government throughout the state.
“It’s a novel idea that surely has merit,” he said, but added, “it’s not a panacea,” for the difficulties facing municipalities; and there are obstacles, such as contractual obligations.
O’Scanlon agreed it’s not a magic bullet, but with about 6 to 8 percent savings available for the long haul, it’s one – of many that would be needed – to provide real property tax relief. “You have to take small bites,” he said.
Repeated calls to the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, Woodbridge, seeking comment for this story were not returned.
O’Scanlon said he’s been speaking with local elected officials – though he declined to name them at this point – and getting positive response to the idea.
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