Officials in New Jersey’s municipal and state governments live like most Garden State residents, in a constant battle to make every dollar go farther. But while struggling families swallow hard and find ways to trim our most expensive budget items, Garden State legislators have avoided touching home rule, the state law that guarantees each municipality separate police departments.
Scotch Plains and Fanwood appear to be inching closer to becoming the first two towns in New Jersey to merge their police departments. Officials say this proposal could save both towns about $1 million total without sacrificing the safety of residents. It could come to represent the cost-savings model for not only the two towns, but also the county and the state – a way to close gaping budget holes and mounting tax burdens.
After seven months of cost-analysis, logistics debates and planning to create the framework for a deal that makes economic, business and safety sense, the future of police operations in the two towns hangs in the balance. Two days away from local elections, and with three seats in Fanwood up for grabs, those elected could change the course of this potential watershed moment in local government and law enforcement.
Mayors and the councils from both towns have been meeting to consider a consolidation plan presented in April by the police departments’ two chiefs. Those meetings, as well as subsequent discussions, have been legally held in private because they deal with employment issues.
Under the plan, which council members predict will not be implemented until the spring of 2012 at the earliest, Fanwood Police Chief Richard Trigo would become the head of a merged department serving both towns and Scotch Plains Police Chief Brian Mahoney would retire and be appointed to the civilian post of public safety director.
Mahoney and Scotch Plains Township Manager Christopher Marion declined to confirm that the chiefs have proposed a specific police merger plan to the Scotch Plains and Fanwood councils.
“I can’t confirm anything until it’s been presented to the councils and shared services subcommittee,” Mahoney said, adding, “there are a number of different options that could become possible.”
Marion echoed the chief’s comments. “There's no final plan at this time,” he said. “However, discussions with the Fanwood Borough are ongoing.”
Trigo flatly denied the existence of any police merger proposal. Approached at Fanwood’s police headquarters, he stated, “There is no plan.” He declined to comment further.
Nevertheless, Mahoney and Marion did acknowledge that any police merger, if approved, could save the towns at least $1 million annually through reduced equipment and salary costs, pooled purchasing power, and staff reductions through attrition (they repeatedly emphasized that layoffs would not be included in any merger plan). It also could pave the way for the consolidation of other departments, such as the courts, construction offices, fire departments and emergency medical squads.
Meanwhile, Scotch Plains and Fanwood’s mayors and council members all confirmed that the chiefs did indeed put forward the preliminary plan described above to the two councils. It remains “in its earliest stages,” said Scotch Plains Deputy Mayor Mary DePaola, a member of the Shared Services Committee charged with devising and overseeing the potential merger, but continues to be “the most talked-about” plan since it was first presented.
The plan requires approval from a majority of each council to be implemented. It has enjoyed unanimous support from the Scotch Plains Mayor and Township Council, but it has faced stiff opposition from a majority of the Fanwood Borough Council.
Bullets and Badges, Dollars and Cents
As chief of a merged department, Trigo would oversee day-to-day, “boots on the ground operations,” Scotch Plains Councilmen Bo Vastine and Kevin Glover said in interviews. Mahoney, they said, would play more of a “managerial” role, such as by applying for grants, serving as liaison between the police department and the Scotch Plains and Fanwood municipal councils, and overseeing other, more long-term logistics. Initially, Mahoney’s purview would remain restricted to the police, but would likely expand to encompass Scotch Plains’ fire department and rescue squad – laying the groundwork for a potential merger of those agencies with their Fanwood counterparts, according to Vastine, Glover and DePaola.
Scotch Plains Fire Capt. Brian Mecca said coming under the scope of a public safety director, or merging with the Fanwood Fire Department, would have little to no impact on town finances because the fire departments are volunteer organizations.
“People have talked about [merging the Scotch Plains and Fanwood fire departments], but there's no benefit in that,” Mecca said. “There's no cost savings.”
Changing where firehouses are located or how they are equipped, he continued, could also affect town and homeowner insurance rates. “You need the stations, you still need the equipment to serve the people. So at the end of the day, combining Scotch Plains and Fanwood fire and EMS doesn't generate any cost savings. It doesn't improve your level of service, because right now there's mutual aid agreements.”
As for the proposed police merger, supporters on the Scotch Plains and Fanwood councils have described the chiefs’ proposal as a “compromise” that would offer a “win-win” consolidation to both towns – an approach in which neither chief declines in status or office and both towns gain in service and efficiency.
“If you just merge the departments and one of them is out, it’s offensive,” Glover said. The chiefs’ plan, by comparison, “is a migration path that makes good business sense.”
For two communities, with a combined population of about 30,000, “It’s highly unlikely that they need a public safety director for towns that small,” David Kennedy, professor of criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and director of the school’s Center for Crime Prevention and Control, said in a telephone interview. But it’s an approach that would “make peace between the two departments and communities.”
Scotch Plains and Fanwood police officers, who declined to talk on the record because they are not authorized to speak to the press, expressed general support for the plan. Officers from both towns said they enjoy a “strong working relationship” and regularly share information and provide backup for one another.
Nevertheless, some Fanwood patrolmen did express mild concern that, because their numbers amount to less than half the size of the Scotch Plains roster, “they would be treated like second-class citizens,” in the words of one Fanwood cop. They acknowledged, however, that having Fanwood’s police chief as the head of the merged department would likely ensure that day-to-day operations, promotions, and lucrative overtime duties were assigned equitably.
Scotch Plains council members DePaola, Vastine and Glover said that the position of public safety director could prove temporary – a five-year post, for example, designed to ease the transition into a merger.
In fact, many details – from the chiefs’ new salaries to patrol cars’ new paint jobs – have yet to be worked out or even discussed in-depth, council members said. It also remains unclear how the two towns would together supervise or pay for the consolidated department. A “Shared Services Feasibility Study” published by Cranford-based consultant Jersey Professional Management in December 2009 suggests that Scotch Plains divide funding according to each town’s population, with Scotch Plains (pop. 23,510, according to the 2010 Census) footing three-quarters of the bill, and Fanwood (pop. 7,318) paying the remainder. The Scotch Plains and Fanwood council members who favor a merger – Malool and all four members of the Township Council, and Mahr and two members of the Borough Council – said they would support this type of arrangement.
Fanwood’s police budget for 2011 was, in fact, roughly one-third the size of Scotch Plains’ police budget. The borough appropriated about $1.89 million for its 17-officer department, a breakdown of about $1.83 million in salaries and wages, and about $58,500 in “other expenses,” such as equipment, uniforms and pensions. Scotch Plains set aside about $5.59 million for its 45-officer police department (currently 41 officers, due to four vacant positions that have gone unfilled): about $5.38 million for salaries and wages, and $300,615 for other expenses.
Notably, Fanwood’s police budget does not include dispatch operations. In September 2010, the borough to outsource its police, fire and emergency medical dispatching to Union County’s Public Safety Headquarters in Westfield. The program costs $80,000 per year – slightly more than half the amount Fanwood would be paying if its dispatch operations had remained in-house, Union County Public Safety Director Andrew Moran stated in an Oct. 25 letter to Scotch Plains Mayor Malool.
Scotch Plains, by comparison, provides its own dispatch services, at a cost of about $344,233 per year – a figure Moran said was provided to him by Malool.
Malool has offered to provide dispatch services for both towns for $260,000 total – or about $80,233 less than the township currently pays for its own dispatch operations. Scotch Plains would charge Fanwood about $55,000 for the service.
Moran, in his letter to Malool, expressed skepticism that Scotch Plains could provide dispatch services at that price, adding that Union County would be willing to take over dispatching for Scotch Plains at a cost of $200,000. “While sharing services allows municipalities to reach economies of scale,” he acknowledged, in a nod to Scotch Plains and Fanwood’s potential police merger, “it is unclear how Scotch Plains will be able to provide 9-1-1 dispatch services to two municipalities for LESS than what it is currently paying for one. Any insight you could provide on this matter would be greatly appreciated.”
In an interview Friday, Malool replied that Township Manager Marion and Police Chief Mahoney had calculated that they could reduce the township’s dispatching costs by replacing its full-time dispatchers – augmented by a sergeant who also sits at the desk – with a staff of part-time dispatchers, paid by the towns, but who would not receive fulltime salaries and benefits.
As Mahoney explained, “We’d be back-filling fulltime positions with hourly employees at a given pay rate, and by using hourly employees and spreading the shifts out among four or six people, where no dispatcher is working over the designated 20-hour schedule in a week, you eliminate the benefit and pension costs. I’ve talked about $50,000 in savings, $60,000 in savings, and that’s because of the cost of healthcare nowadays, which the per diems wouldn’t be entitled to.”
He added that per-diem dispatchers “would give us an operational boost, free more manpower for the street.”
Mayor Malool also noted that even if Scotch Plains did contract with the county for dispatch services, it would still need officers or civilian employees to monitor the surveillance cameras installed last year at the high school and middle schools, which feed into the police department’s dispatch office.
“Our dispatchers monitor those 24 hours a day,” Malool said. “If they’re not there, if we went to the county, and had nobody there to do that, then that’s a big service we wouldn’t be using. One of a dozen that would not be performed.”
Malool also sought to strike a note of urgency. “We have been holding up our police department and our dispatch from hiring,” she said, “and our overtime costs are really mounting. We need to make some decisions on our own. Fanwood needs to make a decision.” Scotch Plains has not filled four open officer positions, according to Township Manager Marion, and two vacant dispatcher positions.
The Politics of Policing
The fate of the police consolidation plan may ultimately hinge on the outcome of Fanwood’s mayoral and council elections.
The projected savings from a police merger – which amount to $100 to $200 per year for the average taxpayer – remain a source of disagreement between the Scotch Plains and Fanwood councils. All four members of the Scotch Plains Township Council, who, together with Mayor Malool, reached an informal but unanimous consensus March 23 to make merging the police departments their top priority for sharing services, have suggested or openly stated that the $1 million figure is a “conservative” estimate, arguing that the towns would find additional savings as their partnership evolved.
By contrast, Fanwood Borough Council Republicans Robert Manduca, Anthony Parenti and Mike Szuch, joined by outgoing Democrat Joan Wheeler, represent a 4-3 majority of the council that together has described the $1 million figure as “optimistic.” Together, the voting bloc has effectively stalled any progress on the proposal.
The Fanwood mayor’s office and two seats on the Borough Council, however, are up for election on Wednesday, including Wheeler’s council seat. The two-term Democrat, first elected to the council in 2005, is not seeking reelection.
Mahr and Democratic council candidates Russell Huegel and Kevin Boris have all expressed strong support for a police merger. Republican mayoral candidate Joe Britt and council candidates Jason Benedict and Nicole Cole, by contrast, have reiterated the arguments put forth by Manduca, Parenti, Szuch and Wheeler.
In interviews, public forums and council meetings, Fanwood’s opponents to the merger have argued that they have yet to see a truly comprehensive cost analysis that would illustrate the amount supposedly saved through consolidation.
“This whole process is like buying a car,” said Manduca, who argued that Jersey Professional Management’s 2009 feasibility study lacks “factual, quantifiable” data. “You can get ripped off buying a car, or you can get a good deal buying a car. What scares me is that people are so caught up in the euphoria of buying, they’re not looking at things with a skeptical or rational eye.”
He also asked whether Trigo and Mahoney’s new jobs, if approved, would include salary increases. “You can't add positions and give people raises and say that this combining of departments is going to save us money,” he said.
Trigo’s 2011 salary is $122,830.05, according to borough documents. Appointed chief in 2010 following the retirement of Chief Donald Domanoski, he joined the Fanwood Police Department in 1995 after a two-year stint with the New Jersey Transit Police. Mahoney, meanwhile, is paid $142,997 this year. Named chief in November 2005, he spent just more than a year at the Westfield Police Department before joining Scotch Plains in 1987 and steadily rising through the ranks.
The chiefs’ new positions, according to Vastine, Glover and DePaola, would not necessarily come with higher pay.
“I see Trigo's responsibilities in one area being increased, and in another area being decreased,” Vastine stated. “Same with Mahoney. He doesn't have to do scheduling and appointments, but he’ll have more interactions with the council and the mayor…. They would each kind of reduce one side and increase the other side. So I don't see how there would be a need for increase in compensation under this new structure.”
Glover said simply, “There's no plan to increase their salaries.”
Nevertheless, each chief’s responsibilities would significantly change. Trigo would see his duties expand from running a 17-officer department that patrols one square mile, to a combined department of up to 62 officers who patrol 10 square miles. Mahoney, as public-safety director, would not only oversee a department that patrols two towns instead of one, but could also come to supervise the fire departments and rescue squads.
If the chiefs do ultimately receive raises, “They would not be huge,” predicted Kennedy, the criminal justice professor at John Jay College. “The one who is made public-safety director will likely get something for it. The smaller police chief who becomes chief of both departments may receive what Mahoney used to earn.”
Scotch Plains Deputy Mayor DePaola acknowledged, “Obviously, if you get rid of one of the police chiefs, you would save more money. But I think you need both of them for a while, because you need both voices from both towns to see how the actual combination's going to work together, how the merger's actually going to take place…. The value that both of them bring for a little while is essential and important.”
The amount spent for the higher salaries, however, would ultimately pale in comparison to savings from the merger. “It would be a far more efficient means of policing, especially given the size of both departments and communities. It will be significantly cheaper for them to function,” Kennedy said.
Stuart Meck, associate research professor at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, agreed. “If they want to save money, they’ll do this,” he said. “There’s going to be savings with equipment costs, and there’s probably going to be a savings in the area of supervision with lower staffing levels.”
But in addition to questioning the projected savings from a merger, the bloc of Manduca, Parenti, Szuch and Wheeler – as well as the candidates Britt, Benedict and Cole – have also expressed concern that a police merger would come at the expense of Fanwood’s safety and identity. The 2009 shared services feasibility study, for example, recommends that the merged police department reduce Fanwood’s overnight patrol from two cars to one.
“Between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., you would have one patrol officer patrolling Fanwood,” Councilman Parenti, a retired Fanwood Police Chief, said. “You're telling me that officers’ response time would be the same? How is that possible?"
In a March 23 meeting of the Scotch Plains Mayor and Council, however, Mahoney noted, "There are many ways to measure response times.” He argued that the times vary depending on the nature of each call, and that different departments use different methods to calculate their response times. "It's a variable that's not easily tracked." He added, however, that between Scotch Plains and Fanwood, "the average for all calls-for-service are about the same."
Scotch Plains police responded to 10,061 calls for service, not including traffic stops, in 2008, the most recent figure provided by Jersey Professional Management’s shared services feasibility study. Fanwood responded to 4,853 calls for service.
Mahoney argued that police response times, although difficult to calculate, likely would not be changed by a merger. He went on to assert that consolidation of the police departments would unequivocally benefit residents of both Scotch Plains and Fanwood.
"I think you'd have more resources in anything you combined or shared, simply from the increase in personnel," he said. "There wouldn't be a decline in service. There would be an increase in service."
The merger’s supporters on the Scotch Plains and Fanwood councils also sought to assure residents that “safety is not for sale,” as Mayor Mahr stated, and that a police merger would be approved only if “it would save money and enhance services, not at the expense of services.”
Vastine portrayed the potential merger as an opportunity for the township and borough to set a statewide precedent. “If Fanwood-Scotch Plains were able to pull this off and be a model for the entire state, we've already done it with the school successfully, and we're a model in that regard. Let's continue to be the leader.”
If the past 18 months are any indication, however, council members and town administrators will still have plenty of time to consider the shared services proposals.
“It moves at a snails pace,” DePaola said. “They come to the table, they talk about things, they retreat to their corners, come up with a compromise, come back together again.”
Setting a State Precedent
In the tradition of Home Rule, the law in which the state’s 566 municipalities are run with separate police forces, fire departments and governing bodies, the decision whether to merge Scotch Plains and Fanwood’s police departments – and, in so doing, change the very notion of Home Rule itself – must be made at the local level. State legislators can do little more than watch – but they have been watching closely.
Strapped with billions of dollars in unfunded pensions, a weakened municipal bond market that makes it difficult to borrow money for needed statewide infrastructure projects, and little voter appetite for further deficit spending, state and local politicians have come to look at police department mergers – at $1 million in savings for every two towns – as a method to free-up some much-needed cash.
“Their consolidation would be a model and an inspiration to other communities,” Assemblywoman Linda Stender, D-Scotch Plains, said in a telephone interview Saturday. Stender, a close ally of Mayor Mahr, former Fanwood Mayor and past chairwoman of the Fanwood Democratic Committee, has expressed strong support for consolidating the towns’ police departments. “It's absolutely the wave of the future. I think it can be done. I think that service levels can be maintained, but they have to be able to show how that will be accomplished to the safety and security of everybody. The danger of consolidation is using it as a euphemism for a reduction of service. You can certainly consolidate two town agencies, and still maintain service levels.”
Assemblyman Jerry Green and State Senator Nicholas Scutari did not return calls Saturday. However, Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, R-Westfield, one of the most powerful members of the Assembly and the owner of a law office in Scotch Plains, called police consolidation “an important step.”
“You drive through Fanwood to get from one side of Scotch Plains to the other,” he said. “If there’s some consolidation and its beneficial and it works out well, then it will certainly get attention.”
The first step, however, comes Tuesday. The Scotch Plains and Fanwood mayors and councils have not convened a joint meeting on shared service since a 45-minute public meeting on May 2. Scotch Plains Mayor Malool predicted Friday that the mayors and councils won’t meet again until January at the earliest. What they’ll talk about, and whether they’ll ultimately move forward on merging the police departments – and, in so doing, reshape how New Jersey communities police themselves – will likely be determined by the election results of a single square mile of the Garden State.