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A task force commissioned by Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan has rejected a private consultant’s recommendation that the county’s police department be eliminated or downsized.
Consultant Guidepost Solutions had completed a study last year, which was commissioned by the previous administration, detailing three scenarios where the county police would be eliminated, downsized or its operations transferred to the county sheriff.
Tuesday’s report by Donovan’s Bergen County Law Enforcement Consolidation Task Force, however, said increased retirements, the newly enacted 2 percent spending cap coupled with pension and benefits reform could leave local police with manpower challenges, with county police officers being relied on to back up local agencies.
Merging the county police under the sheriff’s office would place a range of law enforcement functions under an elected official, who is not required to have police experience, the task force’s report said.
"As far as the county police, indeed there was talk of merging it with the sheriff's department, which we felt was not the right thing to do," said J. Fletcher Creamer, Jr., who chaired the task force. “It would be too big of a task for any one person.”
County Sheriff Michael Saudino should review redundancies in his senior officers and appointed undersheriffs, the report said.
In a statement, Saudino said Donovan had “lied to the public” when she told reporters he had received a copy of the task force study. Saudino spokesman Richard Moriarty said sheriff’s officials had to download the report from the county website after its release.
The pair were running mates in the fall 2010 elections, but have butted heads since.
Saudino shot back at the report in the statement.
“The model of a countywide police agency is archaic and doesn’t work as demonstrated by the lack of a county police department in the other counties of New Jersey,” Saudino said. “We should put this question on the ballot this fall and let the taxpayers decide instead of using political subterfuge to fool the people to protect political sacred cows.”
Saudino, who declined to be interviewed by Donovan’s task force, has accused the group of being out to protect the county police as its own force.
"I am sorry for the unfair criticisms you had to face by people who were less than informed in what they said," Donovan told task force members at a press conference, without naming the sheriff. “You didn't deserve it, it shouldn't have been said, and I am sorry that you were subjected to some really stupid comments by people who didn't understand the depth of your knowledge."
Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli said he also had not been given a copy of the report and would reserve comment.
"I am a bit disappointed that I was not asked to attend nor given a copy, as I cooperated fully with both Chairman Creamer and the entire committee, submitted thorough and detailed written materials and spent quite a few hours with them," Molinelli said in an e-mail late Tuesday. "In any event we will all move forward with both the Guidepost [study] and the public input that is desperately needed."
“It’s a very thorough report,’’ he said in December, emphasizing he hasn’t endorsed any of the specific proposals. “It addresses a lot of issues. It addresses the specific savings. It addresses the legal component.’’
County Police Chief Brian Higgins said Tuesday afternoon he had not yet reviewed the task force's report.
Donovan said she has been approached by about a dozen local officials looking to combine their departments, in some form, with the county police. Although consolidation efforts have faced strong public opposition, Donovan said taxpayers were looking for ways to save money.
Among other recommendations in the task force’s study were disbanding the county police mounted and motorcycle units.
“The task force recommends that motorcycle units should be eliminated even for ceremonial purposes as they can create additional costs to the taxpayers in insurance and potential lawsuits,” the report said.
Scrapping police horses is also being analyzed as part of discussions on privatizing the Bergen County Stables. The report also called for an immediate freeze in hiring and promotions at the prosecutor’s office, sheriff’s and police departments until they can review recommended staffing levels.
Jeffrey Bader, a Woodcliff Lake councilman and task force member, said linking the information technology management of the three agencies was a major takeaway from the report.
"We found a lot of duplication in the departments, and the departments not working together," Bader said. "If we have a centralized IT department, of course there would be some synergy there and would save a lot of dollars in the long run, in addition to being efficient."
Donovan convened the task force to review the more than $600,000 Guidepost study, which was commissioned under the previous administration. Budget hearings on the county’s three law enforcement agencies are set to begin next week.