Thirty-four of Camden County's 37 municipalities were represented at a Feb. 1 meeting in Blackwood called by county freeholders to discuss a proposal to create countywide police and fire services.
The meeting was the beginning of what appears will be a years-long process.
No decisions were made on how a shared public-safety system would work, and no announcements were made on what towns would sign up for it.
What was announced following the breakfast meeting—which was closed to the public and held from 8 to 9 a.m. at the Camden County Regional Emergency Training Center—is that a committee will meet to explore options sometime in the next few weeks.
Collingswood Mayor James Maley has said the borough is open to exploring the idea of regionalized police and fire services, even though a similar agreement between Collingswood and neighboring Woodlynne for shared police services failed a few years ago.
Some police chiefs expressed skepticism, but seemed completely willing to listen to ideas being floated regarding shared public-safety units, according to a press release issued Tuesday by the county. Others said they would like to see regionalization on a smaller scale, while there were some who remained quiet and just listened.
Several local officials asked the freeholders at the meeting—Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr., Public Safety Liaison Rodney A. Greco and Ian K. Leonard—how the county planned to proceed with implementation of the proposal.
In answer to these questions, Cappelli reportedly pointed to a blank "whiteboard" positioned next to him.
"That’s why we’re here today. We want to reach out to stakeholders to see exactly what that interest is. If this is going to happen, it must come from the ground up," said Cappelli. "Without your input and your planning, we cannot achieve this goal. The plan will ultimately be drafted by you.”
Camden County freeholders—all Democrats—are proposing the shared police and fire services at least in part in response to Republican Gov. Chris Christie's 2-percent cap on municipal and school budget increases this year.
“Government just can’t continue as-is under this new cap, and whether municipalities feel the effect of it this year, next year, or in two years, it’s coming," Cappelli said. "We all need to live within this 2-percent cap. This cap guarantees the way we deliver services will change in the very near future.”
If a municipality chooses to enter into such an agreement, it would first have to dissolve its own departments and sign a shared-services agreement with the county.
The county would then purchase equipment and assets from the municipality, which would then pay a fee to the county for the public-safety services.
But the system could also turn out to be a hybrid, with equipment being regionalized, for example, but not necessarily forces.
Cappelli refuted the notion that the shared-services proposal is partisan in nature, pointing to the support it has received from both Christie and state Sen. President Stephen M. Sweeney, a Democrat.
The freeholder director acknowledged that in a state that loves its home rule, those officials who opt into the proposed shared-services public safety system "might take some heat initially." He balanced that by noting taxpayers are "fed up."
In addition to the three freeholders, the county was represented by Prosecutor Warren W. Faulk and Sheriff Charles H. Billingham.
Haddon Township and the small communities of Pine Valley and Tavistock were not represented at the meeting—at least, no officials from the three had informed the county they were in attendance.