A titanic power struggle comes to a head today with the release of a report by a committee created to study a consultant’s proposal to reconfigure law enforcement in Bergen County by virtually gutting the county police department and placing the bulk of its operations under the county sheriff.
County freeholders have been awaiting the committee’s report before conducting public hearings on County Executive Kathleen Donovan’s proposed spending plans for the county police, prosecutor’s office and sheriff’s department.
Meanwhile, battles have raged between Donovan and Sheriff Michael Saudino over the necessity of the county squad.
The committee was created to suggest how best to protect Bergen with the least overlap following a study commissioned by her predecessor, Dennis McNerney, that questioned duplication of services.
J. Fletcher Creamer, a well-known and highly respected North Jersey contractor, headed the committee. The panel was in the last stages of approving its final report when his father died nearly three weeks ago, briefly delaying the process.
Donovan received the 35-page report last week. She has reviewed the recommendations and will offer her own.
Although the $623,000 study by New York-based Guidepost Solutions emphasized consolidating and possibly eliminating the BCPD, the department has entered into agreements with towns eager to cut costs by having it handle their public safety responsibilities.
The state of law enforcement throughout the county has been in tumult, with some local departments insisting they should remain as they are, and the police union for the sheriffs insisting that Donovan is acting in her best interests, not those of taxpayers.
Donovan has pointed to the potential cost savings of folding the smaller departments – with their individual administrations and operating costs — into the larger existing county agency.
Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli joined the fray earlier this year when he said he would “recodify” the authority of municipal police chiefs so that the county PD can’t expand into their jurisdictions without formal agreements.
This was unnecessary, Bergen County Police Chief Brian Higgins said, because his department wouldn’t do such work without a signed agreement.
For instance, the county police department earlier this year entered into an agreement with Teterboro to patrol the section of town that previously had been handled by Little Ferry.
Talks are also underway in Demarest.
This comes after Elmwood Park’s governing body officially rejected a merger and a potential deal with Carlstadt fell through when the Borough Council received concessions from its police union to help curb costs.
Molinelli said his concern was over individual towns trying to hash out their own private arrangements. His goal, he said, was to officially vest police chiefs with the authority to oppose any attempts at consolidation by civilian officials, such as mayors and councils.
Higgins, meanwhile, said runaway property taxes in Bergen County will only increase the need for his department to assume policing in more towns.
Under the Guidepost study, county police would keep its canine unit, the bomb squad and the SWAT team, among other moves. Remaining functions would be merged with the sheriff’s department or turned over to the sheriff’s or prosecutor’s offices.