Demarest voters back police merger plan
DEMAREST, Nov 07, 2012 (The Record (Hackensack - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Borough voters on Tuesday strongly backed the proposed merger of their local Police Department with the Bergen County Police as a budget-cutting measure.
The referendum outcome on the ballot question was 1002 to 756.
It's now up to the Mayor and Council to further weigh the proposal. The referendum result was non-binding, meaning that the council is not obligated to heed voters' wishes when it has to make the final decision later this month -- possibly on Nov. 19 -- on the merger.
The issue has been hotly debated in public sessions, and council members have been mixed on whether they will listen to residents, with at least one public leader asserting that ultimately, the plan is the only way to save the large amount of money the borough needs to match revenues with costs.
Under the plan, the local police department would be dissolved and the Bergen County Police would provide services to the borough, using the merged local force. The contract would run for seven years with the option to terminate early if the borough is dissatisfied. The chief would remain the head of the department and the same number of police officers would patrol the borough, schools and intersections.
The local officials who have advocated the merger assert it will boost the borough's bottom line while providing the same or a superior level of police services. The current operating budget of the Police Department is $3.1 million, and the County Police plan would cost $2.7 million annually for the first four years. In addition to that savings, Demarest would stand to cash in from renting the police station and court to the county government, officials have said.
But residents voiced concerns about the projected savings, because after five years, the county may demand compensation for raises; they also questioned whether the borough would be able to extricate itself from the deal if residents are unhappy with the County Police. Many residents told the council they moved to Demarest because they sought a small town feel in which everyone, including police officers, knew each other. Residents also criticized the council for rushing into a plan before all the facts were made public.
Even if the council votes later this month to go forward with the deal, the county freeholders and county executive would have to give their final approval for the plan.
Tuesday's balloting was marred by some residents accusing Police Department members of trying to influence their votes outside the polls. Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli said he received two phone calls Tuesday morning from borough residents.
"I got a complaint about electioneering at the polling locations at borough hall and at the school. We notified the election authorities, who contacted the borough clerk," said Molinelli.
The law requires anyone campaigning to be 100 feet from the polling site and that police may not be in uniform, he added.
Chief James Powderley said no one complained to him and "I've been at both polls and didn't see a problem. These men are union. They are within 150 feet of the poll. They are off duty."
But at least one resident remained upset. "In a time of crisis, is this where all our police energies are being placed I got a robocall from the chief of police, there were four cops at each polling place and placards at stores. I felt extremely intimidated. Nobody is expressing an alternative view. There's a fear we will be targeted if we say anything," said the resident, who did not want her name published.
But many others who cast ballots said they paid no mind to the cluster of police officers holding up yellow placards urging the pubic to vote in favor of the measure.
Al Sole, a resident of 50 years, shrugged, "It's a free country. They can do whatever they want."
John Cutolo, who was asked by an off duty police officer when he got out of his car at the voting poll if "they could count on my vote," said it didn't bother him a bit.
"Their campaigning is no different from people who campaign for politicians except that this will effect them and their jobs." He added, "They are far-enough away. They aren't on the doorstep."
The non-binding referendum, he said, was "silly" anyway because "our vote doesn't really count."
As he left, the circle of police in their union jackets and hats shouted "Thank you!"
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