Despite passionate statements offered by police union officials and township residents about how cuts in police staffing will endanger the safety of both officers and the general public, result in many crimes never being investigated and have an overall adverse effect on the quality of life in the township, members of Lawrence Township Council at their meeting yesterday evening (Tuesday, May 15) decided to move forward with a plan that would eliminate over a dozen township positions – including five in the police department – in an effort to plug a $2.27 million hole in the 2012 municipal budget.
The elimination of those jobs – done through a combination of layoffs, retirements and not filling currently vacant positions – will, together with about $92,500 in cuts to various township programs and services, save an estimated $906,600 during the remainder of 2012 and through 2013.
(Audio from the entire meeting can be found in the Patch media box to the right)
But even with the layoffs, the township will still need to find a way to save another $1.36 million going into 2013.
“When we start 2013, we’re not starting at zero. We’re starting at minus-$1,363,000,” Councilman Michael Powers said. “If $250,000 is a penny [on the municipal tax rate] we’re starting 2013 over 5 cents in the hole.”
“You’re right, councilman,” Township Manager Richard Krawczun answered. “Not only are you starting in the hole, but in the past we could have blended that over time – say, 2 cents this year, 3 cents another year. Now you’re locked in [by the state’s 2 percent tax levy cap]. That’s the major game-changer that we now confront.”
A resolution to amend the 2012 municipal budget, by way of the layoffs and other cuts, will be unveiled at a special council meeting to be held at the municipal building at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow, Thursday, May 17. Another special meeting, at which a public hearing will be held and council members will vote on the amended budget, will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 23.
“On May 23, if the council was to adopt the amended resolution, that means we come back and we have to continue to chip away at this problem,” Krawczun said. “I don’t want this to be misconstrued or sound threatening, but this is the minimum staffing that we can eliminate at this time in order to begin addressing this problem. I don’t want anyone to think that [layoffs] will absolutely stop. We can’t guarantee that.”
Of the five police department positions to be eliminated, one is currently vacant because a recruit hired in March recently dropped out of the police academy. Another of those positions is currently filled by Deputy Police Chief Joseph Prettyman.
Prettyman advised township officials Tuesday that he plans to retire later this year, Township Manager Richard Krawczun announced last night. Krawczun said the deputy chief’s position would be officially eliminated following Prettyman’s retirement. He noted that the police captain’s position – which has been vacant since the retirement earlier this year of Mark Boyd – will not be filled but will remain an “authorized” position on paper should it be needed in the future.
The remaining three police positions will be eliminated by laying off the two patrol officers with the least seniority and another recruit hired in March who remains in the police academy.
Other layoffs included as part of the plan unveiled last night include a clerk from the tax collector’s office, a part-time public health nurse from the health department, a recreation coordinator from the recreation department and a part-time fire apparatus mechanic. An executive assistant for planning and redevelopment will be reduced from a full-time hours to part-time, while a park maintenance worker in the public works department who is resigning because he is moving away will not be replaced.
Two paid firefighter positions – needed because so few volunteer firefighters qualified to drive fire apparatus are available during the day during the work week – are being eliminated. Since early 2011, those two positions have been filled with per diem staff pending certification of the results of the most-recent state Civil Service exam. A vacant secretary’s position in the township manager’s office will be eliminated, and a vacant position in the buildings and grounds division of the public works department will not be filled at this time.
“The 2012 recommended budget that I brought forwarded to the council in January contained no layoffs. The council accepted that recommendation with no layoffs – not for a police officer, not for any other public employee, not a single layoff. As a matter of fact, I was criticized because I brought in one part-time plumbing inspector," Krawczun said as he began the discussion of the layoff plan. "Now, where does that leave us? Where that leaves us is we still have a $2.3 million problem. The [municipal tax increase] referendum was defeated. The alternative was a user fee for trash collection. There’s a lot of opposition to an implementation of that fee. This is not a choice any longer. This is the 2 percent cap live and in action.”
Krawczun acknowledged that the layoffs will change, in a significant way, how the township operates.
“I want to point out to council and to the public, there are going to be times that there will be municipal offices – if this plan is implemented – where you may arrive at town hall and the office is closed. And I don’t mean just the tax office, because there will be other offices affected by this. You will arrive at town hall and the office will be closed,” he said. “So if these [layoffs] go through, you’re going to have to make sure someone is going to be there prior to your arrival.”
Minimal staff cuts are being made at this time to public works, while no staff cuts are being made to the municipal court.
“We talk about snow removal. As we reduce the staff, two things are going to occur – that response is going to be less and it’s going to take longer…. There is a domino effect [to cutting public works staffing],” he explained. “Due to the red light camera program, the Lawrence Township Municipal Court is actually processing 25 percent of all traffic summonses in Mercer County, in the entire county, taking everyone else into consideration.”
To address the $1.36 million gap remaining following the layoffs, Krawczun said council in the near future will need to consider making a host of other changes, such as to the township’s brush collection schedule, the way recreational programs are offered and the way ambulance fees are assessed. Township-owned parcels obtained through foreclosures will also need to be sold off.
“Other options for consideration are alternatives for trash collection, whether it be a user fee or privatizing the service for subscription,” Krawczun said, though he pointed out that it is unclear at this time whether or not such changes to trash collection would be of any help. “As we have all seen this week, there is legislation pending that would require two things: one, if a user fee is instituted it gets applied to your 2 percent cap and, secondly, if you do transfer or eliminate a service, your cap base would be reduced. So there is a disincentive, in the proposed legislation, to minimize the operations of government because you’re going to be penalized if you privatize or eliminate a service.”
“I think that one point that hasn’t been made that’s important for folks to understand [is] some folks believe that if we’re able to find a way to get through these tough times, when times get better and money is better, we can add these services back. With the 2 percent cap, whatever is cut, will be cut. There will be no ability to re-grow what it is that we cut back,” Councilwoman Cathleen Lewis said.
“I think that’s important to think about as we look at these things,” she said. “No one wants to see anyone laid off. No one wants to see these cuts. We asked this question to the residents. The referendum was a resounding no. That leaves us with two options. It leaves us with the [trash] user fee which, if we listen to residents here, is also a resounding no. Or, drastic cuts which, if we listen to residents here, is also a resounding no. One of those no’s has to turn into a yes. And, unfortunately, as we move forward, that’s what we’re looking to do.”
Ironically, the layoff plan was unveiled after several township police officers and civilians received awards at the beginning of the council meeting for crime-solving and life-saving actions they performed within the last year.
The meeting’s public comment period also took place before any details of the layoff plan were revealed.
During that period of public participation, Lawrence Township Police Officer Andrew Lee, president of the Lawrence Township Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 209, pointed out to council that in the last two weeks two township police officers have been attacked while performing their jobs and township officers have responded to two armed robberies.
“I bring these situations to your attention because they are recent and involve officer safety. I believe that with any type of decrease in manpower through layoffs or any other means will inevitably cause an officer getting hurt or possibly seriously injured or killed,” he said. “Let's face it we are the gateway to the City of Trenton. The reason why you don't have an influx of crime – and when I say that I mean more than the 24 percent that has already increased according to the 2011 Lawrence Township crime statistics – is because of your police force.
“A police department is not a business. It is a public safety organization that our community relies on to protect their families and property,” Lee said. “Lawrence Township FOP Lodge 209 will oppose and take a strong stance against any layoffs that will negatively impact officer safety or create a risk to members of the community. I implore you, Mayor and Council, to do the right thing and find other means than to put my fellow officers and this community's safety in jeopardy.”
(Click here to read Lee’s full statement to council)
“From a strictly financial standpoint, this township cannot afford to lay off any police officers. From May 1 through today, the Township of Lawrence has spent in excess of $18,000 in overtime to provide the minimum number of officers required to work the road and dispatchers to operate communications,” Lawrence Township Police Officer Andres Mejia, treasurer of Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 119, told council. “Since 2011, the Township of Lawrence has spent in excess of $160,000 in sergeant’s overtime as opposed to promoting a sergeant at a cost of $20,000. Laying off the junior-most police officers will result in the Township of Lawrence having wasted several hundred of thousands of dollars in training these officers.”
“During the crisis we’ve experience over the last three or four years, we’ve had to tighten our belts. But one thing we can ill-afford is to sacrifice [public safety],” George Kline, a retired Willingboro police lieutenant who currently serves as treasurer of the New Jersey State FOP Lodge, told council. “When I call 911, I expected my fire department, my police department, my EMS to arrive on time. If you cut, you’re not only hurting the officers, the firefighters, the EMTs, but every resident is affected by that. I hope you consider before you lay off any of your public servants.”
“If I call you and you’re unable to answer the phone, I can leave a message on your answering machine and wait for a return call. But when you call the police and no officer is available to respond, people could die. Brace yourselves – layoffs could cost lives,” council was told yesterday by Tom Egan, a Lawrence Township resident who is a police officer in Robbinsville and serves as president of the Robbinsville PBA.
“In Trenton, crime data comparing the first 15 weeks of 2011 with the first 15 weeks of 2012, post layoffs, show that overall crime is up 15.6 percent,” Egan continued. “When police officers are laid off, department priorities shift. Arrests and summonses decrease, with enforcement of quality-of-life crimes and traffic violations suffering the most as police focus their remaining resources on more serious offenses… The drop-off in arrests and enforcements will lead to long-term problems. Property values will plummet and crime will spiral out of control.”
Township resident Steve Amiott reminded council that one of the fundamental responsibilities of local government is to provide for public safety. “I don’t envy the position you are in, but you have to do something to not lay off police. You have to find more police officers,” he said. “When seconds count, the cops are minutes away. I need them to be seconds away.”
“I can’t make the impassioned plea that you hear for the police because we’re not seen in that light. But we are the ones who clean the roads, inspect all the restaurants, and also take care of all your recreation, your plowing, and cleaning up after hurricanes. We are at bare-bones minimum. We’ve had cuts for a long time,” Frank Herrick, the AFSCME union official who represents Lawrence Township’s white collar and blue collar staff, said to council.
“I saw a sheet going around here tonight that listed the salaries in this township of $68,000 on up. I don’t think there’s a single member of my union that makes anywhere near that kind of money. We only make in the 30s and 40s. The pensions that everybody talks about average $19,000 after 25 years,” Herrick said. “We’re not rich. We are the bottom of the barrel here. We live in this township and pay property taxes on salaries that half of the people in this room couldn’t live on. There are people making pensions more than our people working full-time. Cut them, lose them? These are the people you’re going to need. This is the only workforce that can respond in an emergency. As we keep cutting them, sooner or later there’s going to be a catastrophe, from the police on down to the guys who plow the roads.”
For Municipal Budget Background, See:
- May 2: “Patch Readers: No Cuts to Police”
- May 2: “Township Council to Decide Budget Changes by May 15”
- April 25: “Balancing Lawrence Township’s Budget”
- April 20: “Help the Council Balance the Budget”
- April 20: “Council Gets an Earful in Wake of Referendum's Defeat”
- April 18: "Tax Increase, School Budget Shot down by Voters"
- April 16: “Governor Weighs in on Municipal Tax Referendum”
- April 16: “Sample Ballot for Tuesday’s Election Contains Error”
- April 13: “Letter to the Editor: Resident Opposed to Tax Hike Urges Council to 'Go Back to Drawing Board'”
- April 12: “Municipal Tax Referendum Forum to be Held Tonight”
- April 11: “Letter to the Editor: Township Manager Explains 'Need' for Tax Referendum's Approval”
- April 10: "Letter to the Editor: Municipal Tax Referendum is 'Best Option to Preserve Services With the Least Cost'"
- April 2: "Residents Grill Township Officials on Tax Referendum"
- March 28: “School Budget, Municipal Tax Referendum Subjects of Rival Meetings Thursday”
- March 26: “Municipal Budget Introduced, Stage Set for Tax Increase Referendum”
- March 26: “Last Chance to Register to Vote for School Board & Tax Referendum”
- March 20: “Township Manager Answers Tax Referendum Questions”
- March 14: “Trash ‘User Fee’ Would Be Mandatory If Tax Referendum Is Voted Down”
- March 8: “Usage Rate for Sewer Bill to Increase 15 Percent”
- Feb. 23: “36 Layoffs, Recreation Cuts Rejected by Town Council”
- Feb. 9: “Details of Tax Referendum, Other Alternatives Given”
- Jan. 18: “Township Manager Presents Proposed 2012 Budget, Recommends Referendum to Exceed Tax Increase Cap”