Sweeney backs Camden County consolidation

Stephen Sweeney speaks as Somerdale Mayor Gary Passanante listens.
Stephen Sweeney speaks as Somerdale Mayor Gary Passanante listens.
Posted: January 26, 2011

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney endorsed Camden County's plan to merge municipal police and fire services Tuesday, putting the weight of one of the state's most powerful Democrats behind a proposal that remains short on detail.

At a news conference in Collingswood, Sweeney (D., Gloucester) downplayed potential logistical hurdles in shutting down police departments in individual towns and creating one unified county force.

"Change is going to be resisted every step of the way," said Sweeney, a longtime proponent of shared services in Gloucester County, where he also served as freeholder director until recently. "This discussion is long overdue."

Sweeney's comments came less than a week before Camden freeholders are scheduled to sit down with mayors and police chiefs, many of whom have expressed reservations that by merging, they would effectively be subsidizing the policing of Camden, which just laid off almost half of its police force.

Plans to regionalize police are also being discussed in Morris and Somerset Counties.

Haddonfield Commissioner Ed Borden, a former Camden County prosecutor, said that it was too early to make any assessments but that he was interested in hearing a more detailed proposal.

"I have seen nothing concrete at all," he said. "But we're going to meet with them. We're interested in anything that's going to save money."

The concept of a regionalized police force has been discussed in Camden County for decades. But Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley said state politicians such as Sweeney were getting behind the concept in a way he hadn't seen before.

"There was some support, but it was always money to do a study. There was no commitment or political will, and we need that because it's not going to get done otherwise," Maley said.

The countywide force has largely been touted as a cost-saving measure, reducing the administrative costs of policing and potentially putting more officers on the streets.

County freeholders have been careful to distance the proposal from Camden's police layoffs. But Sweeney addressed the issue directly Tuesday, calling the situation a "crisis."

"Camden's problem is everybody's problem," he said. "Once [the criminals] bleed Camden, you don't think they're going to be looking at Gloucester City and Westville?"

So far, state police and fire unions have been quiet on the subject of regionalized forces.

Public-safety salaries and benefits in New Jersey have risen steadily over the last decade, as towns flush with rising property-tax bases agreed to contracts that sometimes pay veteran police officers more than $100,000.

Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said he was studying police salaries but declined to say whether they would decrease under a county force.

"We don't have a plan yet," he said. "For new, entry-level officers, absolutely [salaries will come down], but for existing officers, that's something we will have to examine."

Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

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