Bucks County Herald

Special meeting set to address West Amwell referendum on outsouring policing


West Amwell Township voters must decide if they want to sacrifice their police force to help fix a budgetary shortfall.

If the nonbinding referendum passes Nov. 7, township officials will further investigate the possibility of dissolving the police force and outsourcing or significantly increasing taxes to make up the budget deficit.

“This is most certainly not about their performance, rather the cost,” township Planning Board Chairman Robert Tomenchok said. He sat on the township’s finance advisory committee and has sat on a previous ad hoc committee that has looked into the outsourcing issue.

A special meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 18, to continue discussion on the controversial topic. The meeting may be moved to South Hunterdon Regional High School if a large crowd is expected.

According to the resolution, a bid to outsource would be accepted only if the money saved is “significant.”

The resolution, adopted Aug. 16, paints a bleak picture for taxpayers.

Due to a $551,000 annual reduction in state aid since 2009, aid that comprised 44 percent of the municipal budget now makes up only a quarter of the budget.

During that same time, municipal taxes have risen from a quarter to 37 percent of the township budget.

Since 2009, the budget has increased at a clip of about 1 percent a year, totaling about $342,000.

Tomenchok said township officials have been in cost containment mode since the state aid was cut.

“Every line item is scrutinized and must be justified at budget time,” he said. The biggest line item is the police department.

According to the township website, the 11-member police department that absorbs 31 percent of the budget includes a captain, corporal, sergeant, detective sergeant, an administrator and six patrolmen.

Though the ballot question was approved in August, it wasn’t until last month that public discussion of the issue kicked into high gear. “Vote No” lawn signs have started to line local roadways.

Tomenchok was not involved in the decision to draft the referendum, but he said he understands why it happened.

“We were criticized by a few people some 10 years ago for the last study being conducted behind closed doors,” he said. “It was not the case, as all of our meetings were held open to public participation.”

He believes that the idea of drafting the referendum was “purely democratic in nature.”

Township resident Mike Spille is concerned that taxpayers aren’t getting what they need to make an informed decision.

“Residents are deeply concerned that the township is not giving us adequate information on a topic that is so vital to our interests,” Spille said.

According to the resolution, if more residents vote “no’ or township officials are unable to find a proper outsourcing suitor, the average local municipal tax rate is estimated go up about $400 per year over the next several years.

“The problem here is not that our police department is too expensive or a luxury, the problem is that the township is facing a revenue shortfall and has looming service needs that we can’t finance,” Spille said.

The resolution states that the savings anticipated from outsourcing would be used to “maintain a reasonable municipal tax” and fund “repairs to municipal-owned buildings and roads.”

“Logic dictates that you look at the big-ticket items and control that which can be controlled,” Tomenchok said.

In 2010, after state aid was first cut, West Amwell officials had exploratory talks with Lambertville, N.J., about merging police departments but nothing came of them.

“The issue is critical to the township; residents are clearly very under informed, and the referendum date is coming upon us quickly,” Spille said.



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