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Some Thoughts on the Proposal to Consolidate Police and Fire Departments in Camden County

By Albert Countryman Jr.

Gloucester City News Publisher and Editor


Proposal Analysis

  The Board of Freeholders proposal to create a countywide police and fire department will have major ramifications here, and throughout the state.

  There are 37 towns in Camden County, and the Freeholders are giving them the option of disbanding their local forces and joining the regional departments – supposedly at a savings to the municipalities and the taxpayers.

  Questions include: Will there really be a savings?

  What will this mean to the Gloucester City Fire Department, which has already had layoffs of eight paid, career Firefighters/EMTs?

  In a new County Fire Department, would they hire Gloucester firefighters on the basis of seniority and tenure, or would they hire the younger firefighters – like the ones just laid off?

  Resident Doris Pulaski is very upset about the future of the Brooklawn Fire Department, which is entirely staffed by volunteers.

  “They do a great job protecting the town, and they have fundraisers to support the department. This new proposal stinks,” Pulaski said.

  What will become of the Mount Ephraim Fire Department, which is also volunteer and currently building a new Fire House on Bell Road?

  Also, what about the future of the Bellmawr Police Department? Layoff notices have gone out to every employee in the town, so how sure can the officers be of future employment?

  If this proposal goes through, will Camden County have more control than local governing bodies of what public safety services are received, and more control of taxpayers’ money?

  Some of these questions should be answered this Tuesday, February 1. 

  The Freeholders will host a breakfast meeting from 8-9 a.m. on Tuesday at the county’s Regional Emergency Training Center (RETC) in Blackwood to meet with mayors and fire and police chiefs exploring the proposed countywide police and fire departments.

  The public is not invited, but a statement from all stakeholders will be issued after the meeting. Additional meetings will take place with the PBA, FOP and firefighters unions for their input after this initial meeting with local mayors, police chiefs and fire chiefs.

  “The county’s role is as the facilitator in this,” said Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli, Jr. “It is up to municipalities to decide whether they would be interested in such a plan. This meeting on February 1st is an exploratory meeting to see whether there is interest in this kind of shared services opportunity.

  “In these tough economic times, the county and our 37 municipalities are struggling to balance their budgets within the two percent cap as costs for benefits and services rise and revenues fall. This countywide initiative could help make public safety initiatives more cost-effective for taxpayers,” Cappelli said.

  He stressed that participation in any such countywide force would be strictly on a voluntary basis, as is the case with other county-shared services.

  The Freeholder Board introduced a resolution at last week’s meeting that will address exploring with all stakeholders the possibility of a countywide, regionalized approach to police and fire protection.

  Across the state, both Governor Chris Christie and the state legislature are calling for less home rule and more shared services as a way of delivering essential services while providing relief to taxpayers. This initiative of a regionalized force would seek to do that.

  “Right now, we are just in the process of gathering information,” said Freeholder Ronald A. Greco said. “It will take time to evaluate the input and see what a viable plan would involve. We are counting on the expertise of all stakeholders to help guide and inform the process.”

  During the Freeholder meeting in Somerdale, Mayor Meredith Dobbs of Hi-Nella wondered why she heard of the countywide proposal through the media.

  Also, Robert A. Nixon, representing the NJ State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, said, “The proposal itself sent a shudder through the police force. Our membership is concerned about the growing loss of cops statewide.”

  According to a press release sent out by the Freeholders, some mayors are keeping an open mind to the idea.

  It stated that Camden County mayors expressed interest in exploring the initiative of a countywide police and fire department proposed as a shared services option by the Camden County Freeholder Board, but are looking forward to more discussions, input and study before making any decisions.

  “It’s a very difficult conversation to have, but it’s a conversation we have to have,” said Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley.

  As the Freeholder Board expressed it, in these difficult economic times, shared services can present the opportunity to maintain services while saving taxpayers money.

  In the coming weeks, through meetings, input and discussion with all stakeholders, from mayors, police and fire chiefs, as well as PBA, FOP and firefighters union officials, the regional police and fire initiative will be explored.

  “We want to develop a totally voluntary option that can make sense for some municipalities,” Free-holder Cappelli said.

  “I am 150 percent for this initiative, with a different perspective from a lot of mayors,” said Lindenwold Mayor Frank DeLuca.

  “A regional police and fire department is safer for residents, police officers and firefighters because it allows better communication among municipalities, the ability to have special units and because everyone is on the same page, which isn’t always the case now. I think Camden County is long overdue for regionalized police, fire and EMS,” DeLuca said.

  Stratford Mayor Dr. John Gentless, who is incoming president of the Camden County Mayors Association, weighed in with some of his perspective and concerns.

  “I want to know more about the countywide initiative,” he said. “I’ve spent 36 years as a volunteer fireman and 30 years running with the squad, so these issues are very close to my heart.

  “I have been part of the Blue Shield Feasibility study to determine whether five towns in the Sterling District could share services in some of these areas,” Gentless said.

  “I’d like more detail and am happy top attend the February 1 meeting and any subsequent meetings or serve on any committees to help determine whether there is a viable option here,” he said.

  “Police and fire protection go to the core of the responsibilities municipal governments have to our residents,” Gloucester Township Mayor David Mayer said.

  “I believe the Gloucester Township Police and Fire Departments are the best in the state and they provide the most essential service for our municipality—preserving the health and welfare of our community,” Mayer said. 

  “I welcome the discussion of shared services, and I look forward to reviewing a more detailed county plan, when it is available, with our Gloucester Township Police and Fire Chiefs.”

  Mayor Jack Severson of Laurel Springs said, “I like anything that saves taxpayer dollars, as long as there’s a good plan and we maintain municipal identities.”