JERSEY CITY – Local police officials are dealing with declining numbers because they have not been able to fill vacated positions in their squads following retirements, public safety representatives said at a lengthy Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee hearing today.
“We’re being worked to death,” said Steve Demofonte, a member of the executive board of the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police. “We’re being forced to work more hours. We’re being forced to endure hardships financially and emotionally.”
Camden FOP President John Williamson said more gangs are recruiting now that police staffing levels are low.
Anthony Weiners, the president of the New Jersey Police Benevolent Association, submitted testimony that echoed the need for more officers, calling the Law and Public Safety Committee the most important committee of the Assembly.
“The streets should be dirty before they’re unsafe,” Weiners said, speaking about the priorities of state funding.
The head of one Union County municipal police department also said officer resignations are a growing problem.
“We had 77 police officers, and out of 77 we’ve lost 11 through attrition and layoffs,” Hillside Police Chief Robert Quinlan said. “That’s quite a few officers for us to lose and it has a very substantial impact on a small town like us.”
Quinlan said officers are “extremely stressed and fatigued.”
“I’m ashamed to say we have cut out the DARE program in Hillside because of a lack of funds,” he said.
The hearing was held today at New Jersey City University in Jersey City.
While public safety officials were quick to fault the state for funding cuts, Michael Drewniak, spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie, said local police unions and government officials have to do better in their negotiations in reaching agreements to keep taxpayers safe.
“On a positive note, it’s good to see today’s committee hearing held in Jersey City, where Mayor Jerramiah Healy and public employee unions have been honest with the public about the difficulties faced by the city and worked cooperatively to address them, most notably in the area of public safety,” Drewniak said in a statement. “On the other hand, other large cities represented at today’s hearings have faced union intransigence and resulting layoffs.”
Healy said today that since his city’s crime statistics are down, he hasn’t been able to acquire federal grants to replenish public safety losses.
The mayor of the state’s second largest city said that although pension benefits legislation passed last June and was “a big relief to our city and the taxpayers, the downside was there was a stampede to the door by some of our most experienced people…we’re not in a position to rehire.”
“Crime has continued to trend down in our city,” Healy said. “(The federal government) says we have no money to give you…my point is, because of the good work of our police and fire, we have been punished for our success by the folks in Washington.”
The issues of sick pay and pension reform were not major topics of discussion during the hearing, but many public safety officials criticized the governor’s 2 percent property tax cap.
The towns represented before the committee by municipal and union officials – Jersey City, Newark, Camden, Irvington, Kearny, East Orange and Paterson – have over $178 million in accumulated sick and vacation pay liabilities alone.
One local official said it’s difficult to ask residents to exceed their tax levy beyond the 2 percent cap, especially because it’s a tough sell to taxpayers.
Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, (R-16), Somerville, said that was one of his favorite aspects of the 2 percent cap.
“That’s what the 2 percent cap is all about,” Ciattarelli said. “It’s about making local officials tell the truth.”
Local officials asked for a restoration of Urban Enterprise Zone funding to help keep business districts safe, and some asked for the return of energy tax receipts to increase cash flow to municipalities. The issue of energy receipts has been a top priority for the League of Municipalities this budget season. The state has clashed with local officials about the fate of the coveted funds. The League of Municipalities has asked for the money to be returned from the state to local officials for direct property tax relief.