I was elected to represent the people of Bergen County as your Freeholder. I think a costly referendum on the issue of a police merger would only reveal what common sense already tells us. Bergen County citizens want every government agency to cut spending, increase efficiency and eliminate redundancies.
Moreover, having been immersed in the details of county policing for the last year and a half, and as a member of the Creamer Taskforce, the most important county law enforcement question is whether or not a reduction and shift of the County Police Department to the Sheriff’s Office will impact the safety and security of Bergen’s citizens. That critical and not so simple answer is something that a referendum will not provide.
Bergen County is unique. We are approximately 250 square miles in direct proximity to New York City, with over 500 miles of state and county roadways and 9,000 acres of county parkland. We are the most populous county in New Jersey. We have more than 905,000 residents throughout 70 municipalities; a population larger than six States. There is little value gleaned by comparisons to other New Jersey counties given these statistics when it comes to law enforcement.
When I became a member of the Creamer Taskforce, I took on the mission of analyzing county law enforcement with an open mind. Maintaining security for our citizens while examining cost saving opportunities in the county law enforcement agencies of the Prosecutor’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office and the County Police Department was our priority. The Guidepost Solutions study was similarly positioned. Their resulting report provided recommendations for savings and options for remodeling county law enforcement. We agreed on a great deal.
Of the fifteen cost-saving recommendations made by Guidepost, the Creamer Taskforce supported thirteen. We determined that two would not be feasible – (1) the elimination of the Water, Search and Recovery Unit, which in Bergen, would put the onus on firefighter volunteers and challenge the chain of custody of evidence, and (2) privatizing the Medical Examiners Office, which given the current process in our county, would not provide noteworthy savings. The Creamer Taskforce did suggest looking at shared services opportunities with Medical Examiners in other counties.
To date, as Guidepost recommended, the Prosecutor’s Office, the Sheriff’s Department and a reduced overtime rate for County Police have produced hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer savings. The Sheriff’s Office reduced their budget by $1.7m including $600,000 in overtime. The County Police Department disbanded its motorcycle and mounted units which allows for cost avoidance in insurance, injury and expensive liability.
Cost reductions outside of those proposed by Guidepost have also been implemented. The elimination of the patronage position of Director of Law & Public Safety along with the head of Division of Consumer Affairs has saved taxpayers over $200,000. Those responsibilities are now handled by the Bergen County Police Chief and the head of the Division of Highway Safety. An agreement with local hospitals has reduced emergency medical costs by $1.2m. A renegotiated County Police contract saves $55,000 annually. Expanded coordination for IT purchases have yielded over $100,000 in savings.
There is no question that more can be done and should be done. The 2012 budgets of the Sheriff’s Office, the Prosecutor’s Office and the County Police Department remain $59m, $28m, and $19m, respectively. The Guidepost Study did not examine or offer recommendations for all areas of
county law enforcement including the Jail, Office of Emergency Management, County Dispatch and Highway Safety.
The Creamer Taskforce does make additional proposals for privatizing functions such as process-serving and reducing the investigative duplication discovered within the Prosecutor’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office, and advocates placing a freeze on new hires and promotions in all agencies until
staffing levels, compensations and benefits are aligned with recommendations.
As we examined Guidepost’s three options for reducing the County Police and shifting law enforcement personnel to the Sheriff’s Office, questions began to emerge regarding their projections for savings. Realistic numbers for calculating transitioning costs seemed lacking, including more than $500,000 a year in Social Security payments to police officers.
Importantly, as a former Mayor, I was concerned by Guidepost’s recommendation that “municipal police agencies assume responsibility for patrol calls for service within county parks, schools and all other County facilities with additional responsibility for any follow-up investigations emanating from these locations.” (GPS p. 107), yet does not offer an explanation as to how this would affect municipal departments. Current and severe budget constraints, including the 2% cap, have made mutual aid, which is already a routine part of municipal policing, that much more essential. Municipal calls for mutual aid to the County Police are already up 144% in 2012 over 2011.
Finally, Guidepost affirmed what The Creamer Report learned through our investigations, redundancy is limited. Redundancies are mitigated or effectively prohibited in New Jersey by Executive Order 92-1 which mandates the prevention of duplication of services through the oversight of the County Prosecutor. Concerned taxpayers must remain mindful that under all options, police functions are not eliminated. Consequently, the funds necessary to accomplish those responsibilities are not eliminated. Swapping budgets, patches or logos, is not a cost-saving silver bullet.
Our citizens deserve the highest standard of modern, professional, and cooperative policing possible. They are receiving that now and I am proud to say through the efforts of Republican leadership, at a much reduced cost than they were two years ago. I remain firmly committed to our priority of maintaining a safe and secure county while maximizing efficiency and cost-effectiveness. A referendum and forced consolidation are not the answers. Informed decisions, not politics, will assure that both fiscal responsibility and quality policing continues in Bergen County.
Maura McMahon DeNicola (R-Franklin Lakes) is an elected Freeholder in Bergen County, New Jersey, and a friend of ‘The Save Jersey Blog.’