BRIGANTINE — The city’s 2013 budget, which was introduced at a City Council meeting Wednesday, took a back seat to debate over a public safety director who would take the place of the city’s retiring chiefs.
Public comment at the four-hour meeting was dominated by the proposal to fold the city’s chiefs of police, fire and beach patrol into one public safety director position. Those three positions have either been vacant or will soon be vacant due to retirements.
At the end of the night, the City Council approved in a split 5-2 vote an employment advertisement seeking candidates for the position, which would not lay out any specific duties or a salary range. However, the officials who voted in favor of the ad stressed that the public safety director proposal is not a foregone conclusion. Actually approving the position was not voted on.
“I take issue with the statement that you want us to reconsider the decision,” said City Councilman Frank Kern. “We haven’t come to that decision; we’re exploring that decision.”
The proposal itself was not included in the $30 million budget — including $1.9 million in emergency appropriations — that council approved earlier in the evening.
The proposed 2013 budget, with a total tax levy of $22.2 million, calls for a local tax-rate increase of 3.4 cents. That would translate to a municipal tax rate of 52.2 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
If the rate stands, it would mean properties valued at the average residential assessment of $499,316 would pay $2,606 in city property taxes, up about 7 percent from the $2,436 paid last year.
Mayor Phil Guenther said the research on a public safety director that he’s seen so far has not been well organized and the impact is hard to quantify.
“The objectivity is not there in terms of the research process that’s been outlined,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of confidence in that.”
Sending out a request for candidates without making a firm decision about the public safety director is irresponsible, he said. It would be “insincere” to put an ad out without any intention of hiring the individual.
“It looks like we’re building the plane while we’re flying it,” he said.
A number of speakers, many of them affiliated with public safety organizations in Brigantine and statewide, came out against the public safety director proposal.
Ray Hayducka, president of the New Jersey State Chiefs of Police Association, said a civilian police director can’t perform many of the duties given to police chiefs. A civilian director would not be able to review internal affairs reports or to go out in the field to perform police duties.
“I wouldn’t want to see you tamper with what’s working,” he said. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
Hayducka, who also serves as a police chief in South Brunswick, Middlesex County, said the change would also impact police morale since the role of chief is one that career police officers look to competing for one day.
“Let’s face it; you don’t get big raises in the public sector anymore,” he said. “This is the reward.”
Atlantic City Fire Chief Dennis Brooks said most public safety directors don’t have experience with fire departments. In his municipality, Brooks said, the director often leaves fire decisions to him.
“I don’t know who you have in mind for this position, but if he has hair now he won’t have it for long,” he said.
Removing the chiefs is like “cutting the head” off those organizations and would break the chain of command, he said.
Despite discussion in recent months about the creation of a public safety director position, the possibility of layoffs and the sale of municipal properties, the current budget does not include those measures.
But layoffs may still be on the horizon.
“If we can avoid it we’re going to avoid it,” said Councilman Rick DeLucry, in response to the questions of one police officer. “But I can’t tell you with any amount of confidence that layoffs won’t happen.”
DeLucry said this year’s budget cuts much of the “cushion” in the budget, in the form of reserve funds. “We won’t have anything in next year’s budget to make up that hole,” he said.
One of the items cut from the original draft budget is funding for terminal pay. The city’s auditing firm had recommended $985,000 to cover unemployment, sick pay and other costs from six anticipated retirements in 2013. The new budget includes $200,000 for those costs.
The budget also incorporates $350,000 in revenue from the state’s low-interest Hurricane Sandy disaster loan program, which City Manager Jennifer Blumenthal said the city has committed to covering if the state does not approve the loan.
“We put in for the loan that was available for Sandy disaster to help balance the budget in future years,” she said. “There’s no guarantee we’ll get it, but we did submit it on the recommendation of the (state Department of Community Affairs).”
Councilman Andrew Simpson voted not to introduce the budget, saying he had received the final version a half hour before the meeting. “I would like to have more time to look at the budget,” he said.
The rest of the council voted to introduce the budget. The next step for Brigantine is to submit the budget to the Division of Local Government Services for review. The city will then hold a public hearing for input on the budget, with a final approval coming in about a month.
Simpson joined Guenther in opposing the employment ad for the public safety director position.
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