As host mayor of Tuesday evening's Camden County press conference, Mayor James Maley said the borough's previously failed shared police service with Woodlynne doesn't mean the county's plan won't work here.
Tuesday's conference, held at Collingswood Community Center, featured visits from state Senate President Stephen A. Sweeney, Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr., Freeholder Rodney A. Greco—the freeholder board's public safety liaison—and three other area mayors.
In an effort to offset recent layoffs in police and fire departments—a direct result of New Jersey's economic crisis and the state's 2 percent property tax hike cap—Camden County officials held Tuesday's press conference to unveil a countywide shared services agreement.
"We have way too much government (in New Jersey), and we are in a crisis right now," said Sweeney Tuesday. "We have to find a way not to take any more police off the street, but reduce the cost and put more police and firefighters on the street to protect our citizens.
“Consolidation and shared services are key to New Jersey’s financial health, as we look to cut spending to reduce property and other taxes while maintaining essential services to our citizens,” said Sweeney. “To achieve this, government at all levels—local, county and state—must re-examine how to provide these services in the most efficient and cost-effective way. Public safety is of prime importance and any consolidation or shared services plan must put the safety of citizens first.”
The idea is to create a countywide police and fire department, one that Camden County municipalities could opt—or opt not—to take advantage of.
Several times throughout the conference, Maley was asked why he'd consider sharing public safety with the county when previous shared service arrangements haven't worked out in Collingswood.
Collingswood Police Department's previous shared-policing agreement with Woodlynne Borough didn't last. The two departments merged, and later ended the agreement. Collingswood now operates its own police and fire forces.
"We've really got to look at this (countywide shared public safety) before making any decision," said Maley. "With the Woodlynne shared service, it really didn’t work. And there are lessons to be learned about why it didn't work."
According to Maley, the county's proposal is much different from the former Collingswood-Woodlynne agreement.
"This (potential county agreement) would be on a larger scale," said Maley. "The Woodlynne agreement was for shared police, fire and housing code services. And it really fell apart when Woodlynne decided they didn't want to be involved with fire or housing services."
At that point, Maley said the borough decided it wasn't worth trying to share police services only.
"We never went into it (the Woodlynne agreement) to save money. We went into it to increase our public safety," said Maley.
But despite the previous failure, Maley made apparent that Camden County's shared-services proposal isn't falling on deaf ears.
"But because that (Woodlynne agreement) didn't work, it is not a reason for us to never discuss it again," he said.
Maley even provided an analogy as to why it's important that shared services be considered.
"This is very hard, and there are a lot of emotional issues involved—like people who are concerned about their safety, their jobs and the livelihood of their communities," said Maley. "But it's kind of like growing old. I don't really want to look at it, but it's happening, it's inevitable, and you really have to look at the issues and address them. And the longer we don't address it, the worse it's going to get."
According to Freeholder Director Cappelli, Camden County officials will hold a meeting for the mayors, police chiefs and fire chiefs of county municipalities on Feb. 1 in Gloucester Township.
Cappelli said that while officials from every municipality have been invited, it is not mandatory for them to appear. If a countywide police and fire service were, in fact, implemented, Capelli said municipalities would be able to choose whether or not to take part.
"During this meeting, we'll gather information from all the mayors and see what interest they may or may not have in it," said Cappelli. "And even if it's just one single town that signs up, we will most definitely form a county police department. Because if we start with one town, in these economic times, it's likely that others would join."
In front of about 45 people who'd gathered in Collingswood Community Center Tuesday night, Maley spoke of a need for consolidation that has risen over time.
"We are through saving nickels and dimes. It's purely a matter of numbers now, and it comes down to personnel," Maley said of how economic hardships have led to reducing public safety personnel. "I've been doing this for over 20 years. I've been here as we expanded our police department, I've been here when we extended our emergency services to 24 hours, but we're at a point where we are no longer able to afford it."