The Hightstown Borough Council is examining the possibility of replacing the position of police chief with that of public safety director. Officials said the move could save the borough money and give it control it has recently been lacking over a police department that has been mired in controversy.
Chief James Eufemia announced earlier this month he would be retiring from his position in September. At the council’s Monday meeting, Mayor Kirson said the chief’s previously announced 17 months of pension in his retirement package should cost the borough between $20,000 and $25,000 altogether. A public safety director, on the other hand, would have a lower salary and few—if any—benefits.
“The savings to go with a public safety director is substantial,” the mayor said. Depending on the wording of the ordinance, he continued, “it could be understood the governing body would have a greater impact and ability to discuss things with a public safety director.”
Council members voiced support for the idea, including Democrat, new Council President and Police Liaison Larry Quattrone. He said he supported hiring a safety director back before Chief Eufemia was hired 10 years ago.
“I still lean that way. I did a lot more investigation since then. Mere economics alone prove those numbers are worth investigating,” Quattrone said.
One important factor, he added, was that it’s easier to switch from a safety director to a chief than vice-versa. “If you hire a public safety director, you can always change your mind,” he said. “But once you hire a chief… you’re talking many, many moons” before you can go in the other direction.
Republican Councilwoman Skye Gilmartin, who is running for reelection, said the borough should draft an ordinance to install a safety director, something the council ultimately agreed on.
“On the outset, purely on an economic basis, we get very little opportunity to save money,” she said. “This is a wonderful opportunity to save the borough some money, but also to create a change in leadership and a different level of accountability and communication for the council.”
Democratic Councilwoman Isabel McGinty said she was interested in the savings a switch to a safety director could bring but that she wanted to see cost estimates first. Mayor Kirson said that with Chief Financial Officer George Lang on vacation, those numbers were not immediately available, but Kirson estimated the borough could save $1 million over 10 years.
McGinty said the council needs to consider other police factors along with the head of the department, such as the borough’s reliance on police overtime. She also said the police department is understaffed, with its officers—10 now that one is back from maternity leave—doing two or even three consecutive 12-hour shifts to provide the borough with 24-hour-coverage.
“We know that our issue is not simply, ‘Do we get a PSD, do we hire a chief,’ and just go forward without complications. We have tremendous complications,” she said. “It’s not just what our chief will cost, it’s what our police coverage will cost. And this is an issue we have put to the side and let it rest.”
Police overtime costs in recent months have increased, and a disagreement over authorizing those payments nearly kept borough employees from getting their Christmas week paychecks. McGinty has said she believes increased overtime costs may go far beyond budget projects for 2011, and she has brought the issue up at most meetings this year.
Mayor Kirson said the borough has spent about $58,000 on overtime from January through May, within the lines of the projected 2011 overtime costs of $175,000.
The discussion led to raised voices as McGinty argued that that projection doesn’t take into account any emergencies the borough may face.
“I think we’re seeing the remarkable effect of blinders up here,” McGinty said.
“To see we’re not looking at the numbers is so, so, wrong,” Quattrone said. “We are doing our job here.”
Republican Lynne Woods said, “I’m just very frustrated and I’m tired of being disrespected by other council members when I believe we are having a discussion. So I must have a very different definition of what a discussion is.”
Democratic Councilman Mike Vanderbeck said he saw both sides of the argument.
“Yes, there’s huge questions here, but to say we all have blinders on—I would just say the world is not comprised of closing arguments to everything. You have a certain paradigm you’re looking through and you bring that everywhere,” he said.
Mayor Kirson also floated the possibility of combining the vacant position of borough administrator with that of a public safety director, but said nothing had been decided yet. For now, the council will wait for Borough Attorney Fred Raffetto to draft an ordinance that would set up the public safety director position.