In police regionalization, a tale of two counties

Posted: May 08, 2012

North Plainfield Police Chief William G. Parenti is among those exploring creation of a regional police force in Somerset County, but he doesn’t know whether his own town will find the idea attractive. He has heard no expressions of interest from any others, either.

Three weeks ago, a task force headed by County Prosecutor Geoffrey D. Soriano released a report supporting the consolidation of 19 suburban police departments into a single countywide force and the county into five precincts. That would save the county’s 21 municipalities — two are currently patrolled by state police — $44 million over 10 years, the report said.

“It’s a scary process. Everyone is used to home rule,” said Parenti, president of the Somerset Association of Chiefs of Police and cochair of a subcommittee that looked at operations and procedures. “In a perfect world, you would get all 19. There is a good chance we could get some. The economy is not improving as fast as we’d like and policing is an expensive service.”

As municipal budgets tighten, local and state officials have advocated sharing services, including police. Somerset is considering forming a regionalized force, and Camden County officials are proposing a countywide police department.

Somerset ranks among Forbes magazine’s richest counties in the nation with a median income close to $100,000. Camden County is weighed down by impoverished Camden.

An examination of the two counties’ regionalization efforts shows stark differences in their motivations and approaches and one key similarity: There seems to be little interest in joining such a department.

The driving force in Somerset County is pressure to improve efficiency and reduce costs; Camden County officials say their chief concern is to put more officers on Camden streets. Somerset County has worked on its proposal for years, tried to keep police unions on board by rejecting layoffs, and produced a plan laying out the financial implications in detail. Camden County’s proposal is about a year old, and few details are clear except that numerous Camden officers would face layoffs.

In Camden County, regionalization has been met with resistance from police unions and community activists, who decry it as a union-busting maneuver that will not keep the city safer and who seek to force a referendum on the issue. Last week, Camden city officials sought an injunction in Superior Court to block the referendum. A hearing is scheduled for Monday.

“It took [Somerset County] five years to get to where they are today. They did this based upon really a referendum, to a large degree,” said Dan Keashen, a Camden County spokesman. “In a place like Camden City that’s consistently and perennially ranked as one of the most dangerous places in the country, there is an urgency to create a new public-safety paradigm.”

In Somerset County, the move toward creating a countywide force began when duplication of services and rising property taxes became an issue in the 2006 county election campaign. The next year, county officials began looking at consolidating services.

“In Somerset, we have the luxury of time, which has afforded us the opportunity to do a very detailed study that has been comprehensive,” said State Assemblyman Jack M. Ciattarelli (R., Somerset), who chaired a finance subcommittee for the task force. “When you’ve had layoffs of the magnitude you had in Camden, it forces you to look at alternatives more urgently.”

In Camden County, officials have said the county force would start with a metro division that would patrol only Camden, which cannot afford to hire more officers, and boost the number of officers on city streets to around 400.

Money to pay for the additional officers could come as current officers take advantage of an early retirement package that officials are negotiating with the state and a new contract that eliminates various extras, such as additional money for working certain shifts, Keashen said.

Gov. Christie has pushed Camden and other cities to move away from their longtime reliance on state aid. Camden depends on the state for more than 70 percent of its budget.

In January 2011, officials in Camden County introduced the idea of the county force, which Christie supports.

Officials said a countywide force would save money as towns struggle with a 2 percent cap on tax levy increases. Financially strapped Camden was forced to lay off 168 officers in January 2011. More than 100 officers have been rehired through grants, but 80 to 90 others have left for retirement and other reasons, union officials said.

Around 280 officers are on the rolls now, according to union and police department officials.

Suburban towns have balked at joining a county force. Only Camden City officials have signed on.

Negotiations among the state, city, and county are continuing behind closed doors. Issues such as the costs of policing the city and of early retirement packages for veteran officers have yet to be finalized.

“We’re not sure what the cost savings will be,” Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr said last week. “Camden has been and continues to be in a public safety crisis because they simply do not have enough police officers on the street. If we can do that with about the same money that Camden’s spending now, or a little bit less, great.”

In Somerset County, the task force added a subcommittee, headed by Ciattarelli, specifically to explore costs.

“We did not feel we could release the report without some hard numbers,” said Richard Celeste, cochair of the prosecutor’s task force and executive director of the Raritan Valley Public Safety Institute and Somerset Police Academy. “We needed to assemble numbers people to look at the total impact.”

An earlier report by consultant Thomas A. Banker, a former Newark budget director and a former deputy Essex County administrator who is now an adjunct professor at Columbia University, cited a possible saving of $17.8 million once the budget for the force was stabilized.

Ciattarelli said savings would come by changing the supervisor-to-officer ratio from one to two to one to five, negotiating a less expensive contract with newly hired officers, and reducing the number of civilian employees.

Officers currently on the rolls would serve out the balance of their contracts, and early in the Somerset County process, a pledge was made that officers would be lost only thorough attrition, not layoffs. That assurance helped get officers and police unions to go along, Celeste and Parenti said.

“It gives you a sense of comfort ... that somebody is not trying to pull the wool over your eyes and that this process is a legitimate process,” Celeste said.

Citing federal and state labor laws, Camden County officials say their plan is to rehire no more than 49 percent of the existing force to avoid being bound by a current contract.

Nearly 700 people have expressed interest in joining the force since county officials placed advertisements in local newspapers, including The Inquirer, more than a month ago.

Cappelli said Camden County was creating a new department, not merging departments into one, like Somerset County. “We need to find ways to increase the number of police officers on the street. By simply combining police departments that exist, we’re not meeting that objective,” he said.

Banker said Somerset County had a number of small forces in towns that had few or no major crime issues, even at 3 a.m.

“You are paying primarily for preparedness as opposed to response,” Banker said. “In Somerset, the idea was, if you could regionalize, you could still be just as prepared, and you would still be adequately staffed without having excess capacity.”

Contact Darran Simon at 856-779-3829, dsimon@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @darransimon.

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