Atlantic City may consider disbanding its police force in favor of a county-based service, in order to save money as casino closings decimate the resort’s tax base.
Monday’s Atlantic City summit discussed a regional police force, summit participants said, as part of a broader discussion state and regional leaders had on ways to remake city government and budgeting.
“I think that with the state of Atlantic City, I guess everything is on the table,” said summit participant Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic. He said the summit discussed how to fund city government in the coming years both with the expected drop-off in casino tax revenue and without relying on the state to cover all shortfalls.
The police proposal could follow the lines of a regional police force developed in Camden, summit participants said.
Camden County and the city of Camden initially proposed disbanding the city police department in favor of a county police force in August 2011, and the new Camden County Police Department, Metro Division, took over policing responsibilities in May 2013.
The budget-slashed ranks were boosted to about 375 officers, who were given a mandate to rebuild community trust, and police say crime has fallen.
Camden County police said this month that comparing the first eight months of the year, violent crime has declined 22 percent between 2012 and 2014 while the murder rate was halved. Nonviolent crime similarly fell 31 percent.
Gov. Chris Christie has praised Camden’s new policing strategy as an effective tool to deliver results. Speaking last June in Camden, Christie touted other lower crime statistics.
“These are incredibly positive results,” the Star-Ledger of Newark quoted Christie as saying. “This is a system that other cities in New Jersey and around the country can emulate.”
Public safety will cost Atlantic City $65.8 million in 2014, or about a quarter of the city’s $261.4 million municipal budget. This includes $31.7 million for the city’s Police Department and $24.3 million for its Fire Department. The balance includes emergency services and communications.
Mayor Don Guardian said at Tuesday’s community summit that the city needs to trim $65 million next year, something that would require a “rethinking” of government.
He issued a statement Wednesday saying all of city government, including its police, was under scrutiny.
“All departments and all services are being re-examined,” Guardian wrote. “We must lower the cost of government overall. Each and every day, I make decisions on what I feel will be the best decisions for Atlantic City five, 10, 15 years from now.”
“Nothing stays the same,” he continued. “We have to change with the times. I am not ready to go into specifics yet, but everything is on the table.”
Guardian said that as mayor, “I have to ask, ‘How are other towns providing these services at a lower cost? Does it make sense for us to consolidate? Where can we do shared services? Should we privatize this or that?’ Especially now with four casinos closing in the past nine months and the overwhelming loss in ratables, all these options are on the table.”
Resort Business Administrator Arch Liston did not attend the summit but said officials have discussed privatization and eliminating departments. He said discussions remain preliminary, with no orders to remake departments.
The city’s police union was skeptical.
Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, said the project would require a “heavy financial subsidy” from the state and questioned whether the Christie administration would adequately manage the finances.
“Atlantic City may be a place where people come to gamble, but public safety should not be on the table,” Colligan said.
City PBA President Paul Barbere also wondered how much could be saved.
“All of the items that have been identified as problematic with union contracts have already been addressed with this last contract,” Barbere said. “Starting salaries were reduced drastically, top salaries have been reduced. Everything that the governor has touched on has been accomplished.”
Performance also should be considered, he said.
“No one can hold a candle to the work the men and women of Atlantic City are doing,” Barbere said. “They have an amazing solve rate. Probably one of the best nationwide.”
He also said the union and police chief should be in on the discussions.
At the same time, some city officials seemed resigned to a county police force.
If Christie and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney want it to happen, city Councilman George Tibbitt said, “You better bet everything you have there’s going to be a county-run police force.”
“It’s official, we’re owned by the state of New Jersey,” said Tibbitt, chairman of City Council’s Public Safety Committee. “We only survive by the aid they give us.”
“I don’t think it’s the right model for Atlantic City,” Tibbitt added. “But you can only have what you can afford, and with (the state) paying. ... It’s not about what we want anymore, it’s about what we can afford.”
Mazzeo said the cost of government was “taken at the meeting (Monday’s summit) as a problem that we have to address and come up with solutions.”
State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, echoed Mazzeo. “We have the crisis we have, so as the governor said, everything is on the table, so I guess this is on the table.” He said a regional police force was not discussed when Whelan was mayor between 1990 and 2001.
Whelan said future discussions would rely on Atlantic County and Atlantic City to work out details. County Executive Dennis Levinson declined comment Wednesday.
City Council President William Marsh expressed support for resort police Chief Henry White and his recent policy decisions, including equipping officers with body cameras.
Marsh did not oppose the regionalization plan but said he needed to understand the process before he could support the proposal.
He also said he wanted to ensure all the relevant parties were part of the discussion. It was an emotional time for resort residents, Marsh said.
“It’s a time like it’s never been before.”
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