Saturday, April 2, 2011

The emphasis on regionalization of New Jersey's local police departments. Part Three

In the past two years, New Jersey has undergone some radical changes. In the name of lowering local property taxes, once elected, Governor Chris Christie sought to implement a series of reforms which was touted as the beginning of the end of New Jersey's high property taxes of which school taxes are the largest percentage.
In 2010, to begin his term as Governor, Christie lashed out at New Jersey's public school teachers. He campaigned for residents to vote against their school budgets. By doing so, Governor Christie created the opportunity to lower school taxes. Because school taxes in New Jersey are high, the rejection of school budgets created the opportunity to slash thousands of dollars. The end result was the cutting of services and programs that serve New Jersey's school children. Many teachers were also laid off. The school taxes though, did not go down. For the most part, the school taxes remained the same, even increasing in many situations as a result of Governor Christie withholding typical "aid" to the local school districts.
In 2011, Governor Christie took on other public workers. Part of this grouping invariably included New Jersey's local police officers. Because police costs are the largest portion of any municipality's budget (separate from school taxes), the police were the obvious focus. The pressure on municipality's could not be ignored. Governor Christie had the Legistlature pass a 2% cap on municipalities. Meaning, they could not raise property taxes over 2% of last year's budget. But, at the same time, Governor Christie, continued to withhold municipal "aid". Municipal "aid" in New Jersey is actually tax money paid from the municipality to the state. In years prior, this money was re-apportioned, and returned to the municipalities based on need assessments. This and last year, "aid" was severely cut. This has left a hole in many municipalities' budgets.
As a result, municipal workers are being laid off like never before. Police have seen lay offs amounting to an 11% loss in police officers throughout the state from 2009 to 2010. This year, the number has continued to increase.
The push is on. Taxpayers want relief. The question remains, relief at what cost?
Police are typically shielded by their unions, the PBA and FOP. But this year, the unions have not been successful in keeping their officers employed. In the largest municipality in New Jersey, Hamilton Township, Atlantic County, 13 police officers received pink slips. Protests ensued. Allegedly talks between the union and the municipality were ongoing with an eye toward keeping some of the officers who had received pink slips.
While most of the public is aware that New Jersey police officers earn high salaries, although not the highest in the nation, the public was not ready for the loss of police services. Seemingly shocked to learn that many police services would be lost, and were, the public in Hamilton Township is now left to deal with their loss.
With public safety ranking as one of the most serious responsibilities of the government, the current economic climate is creating a new source of uncertainty among police officers, the general public as well as municipal officials.
As a result, some creative ideas have been coming forth. One councilman from Roxbury Township in affluent Morris County has proposed regionalized police departments. He has founded the "Government Efficiency Movement" to streamline government services with lower taxes being the end in mind. To learn more about this move particular movement visit
Police regionalization would abandon the model we currently have in most of New Jersey. The municipal police departments would be dissolved and in their place a new model of a county-wide police department would take their place. Emphasizing far fewer police executives and supervisors, the model sponsored by the Government Efficiency Movement would divide counties into precincts with one police chief, and several captains in charge of each precinct. The model would eliminate many high level officers, through attrition rather than lay offs, which, in turn, would provide a savings to taxpayers. Additionally, the model would provide the sharing of other police services, such as fingerprinting equipment and criminal investigations. The savings that would be in Morris County has been said to be $50 million per year. While that is quite a chunk of money, would the taxpayers really be saving or would it amount to a very small reduction, if any, in their tax bills at the expense of the peace of mind and efficiency of service they have become accustomed to?
Unless and until a county actually takes over their municipalities' police functions, the outcomes will not truly be known.
Until then, the speculation is high. The political will on the part of many municipal elected officials is low. And the tax bills continue to rise. Collective bargaining needs to be revisited by the unions and the municipalities. They need to work harder. Otherwise, everyone may lose with regionalization. Or would they win? The thought can cause anxiety in residents who question the effectiveness of regionalizized department as compared to a local department.
The question I ask is, why have we begun regionalization with police services rather than with school districts? After all, school taxes are the largest chunk of a homeowner's property tax bill. Another question for another day.

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