Borough Council presses for immediate police consolidation

Township officials continue to resist proposal

By: Marjorie Censer
   The Princeton Borough Council didn’t take action on either of two pressing issues — police staffing or the potential hiring of a joint emergency-management coordinator for Princeton — at Tuesday’s meeting.
   Instead, members of the council came to a conclusion that wasn’t on their agenda: They want to move toward consolidation of the borough and Princeton Township police departments immediately.
   Consolidation — not only of the police departments, but of the two municipalities — has long been an issue in Princeton. And just last year, the borough unsuccessfully asked the township to look at police consolidation.
   But borough officials said at Tuesday’s council meeting that now is the time to merge the two departments — to save money, to better allocate officers and to make emergency-management coordination feasible.
   "I think that this is one of the single most important things we can do as two separate governments," Borough Administrator Robert Bruschi said. "There are very few situations in government where you can do more for less."
   In June, a public-safety consultant hired by the two municipalities to study the departments’ emergency dispatch services recommended that they combine those services and locate them at the township’s dispatch center. The consultant, Carroll Buracker, said consolidating the dispatch services could save taxpayers more than $2.6 million over five years in personnel costs alone.
   Though he wasn’t asked to look at complete department consolidation, Mr. Buracker said he couldn’t help but note the benefits of such a move in his dispatch report.
   "If the two municipalities split the costs 50/50, millions of dollars could be avoided in the future and each municipality could have tailored police services," the report said.
   From Mr. Bruschi’s perspective, dispatch consolidation doesn’t make sense unless it’s part of a larger step. It’s impractical, he explained, to operate a police department without dispatch services. Now is the perfect opportunity to seriously work on consolidation of the full departments, he told the council, because the township does not have an active police chief and both departments have many individuals at or nearing retirement.
   Borough Police Chief Anthony Federico said he and his department also support police consolidation, calling it a "no-brainer." It will improve the efficiency of the police forces and save money, he explained.
   Borough Council members said they are convinced that consolidation is necessary — all the more so because of concerns about the emergency-management program.
   Members of the Princeton Regional Health Commission have asked the two municipalities to hire a shared emergency-management coordinator, and Tuesday they came before the council to make their case. Though council members said they, too, want to improve the borough’s emergency preparedness, they said the only way to create a clear and effective plan is to consolidate police departments.
   "The sensible thing is to be establishing one chain of command. … If we have not already established that in our everyday life and our everyday dealings with just public safety in general, how can we expect suddenly — when the emergency happens — to coalesce into one chain of command?" Councilwoman Peggy Karcher said. "I think that now is the time to invite the township to sit down with us."
   Council members said consolidation would also free up the necessary funding to support a coordinator.
   "That kind of savings is more than enough to bring in … an emergency-management coordinator," Councilman Andrew Koontz said. "We need an overall public safety plan that works better and costs less."
   Members of the Health Commission agreed that merging the two public safety arms would make for a far more sensible plan.
   "The borough and township structure is inherently inefficient," said Laura Kahn, a doctor and researcher at Princeton University who specializes in emergency preparedness. "Having this doughnut kind of arrangement is crazy really, quite honestly."
   But the borough and the township continue to travel on separate paths. Despite the council’s unanimous agreement to pursue consolidation of the police forces, the Township Committee has not signaled its willingness to combine departments at this time and the township Police Department is largely opposed to the step.
   In fact, Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand said, the township is now in the midst of organizing its own department — based on recommendations provided by a Buracker study. And in March 2005, the township rebuffed a Borough Council request to support the concept of consolidating the departments.
   In an interview Wednesday, Mayor Marchand said she doesn’t know if the township wants to pursue police consolidation and added she would have preferred that the borough conduct a full analysis of its own police department — an option the council decided against last year. She said the Township Committee has not been focused on police department consolidation, instead taking it one step at a time with the dispatch functions.
   "We have not thought about a joint police department as a governing body in a seriously, major way," Mayor Marchand said. "That is a big nut that we have not been considering at all."
   The township has, however, committed to paying its share of the emergency-management coordinator cost — estimated at $150,000 annually — if the borough were to agree to hiring one.
   Township Police Capt. Mark Emann said his officers do not support merging with the borough’s department.
   "We like things as they are," he said. "The vast majority of my police department does not support consolidation."
   He said he sees consolidation as inevitable in the long run, but he is concerned about a single police department answering to two bosses. It would be best, he said, to merge the municipalities and create a single town.
   "Am I for it? That depends on how it’s done," he said. "It can’t be taken lightly."
   Borough Councilman Roger Martindell said in an interview Wednesday it is premature to discuss how police consolidation could be achieved. First, he’d like to see the township express an interest in discussing it.
   "The advantages are apparent, they’re real. They go to the bottom line, and they help the taxpayer," he said. "I think the township recognizes that."
   And he is committed to making a discussion happen.
   "I would approach the subject in any way and every way the township would show an interest in the subject," he said. "Anytime, anywhere, with anyone, anyhow."