Despite a projected savings of some $10-15 million annually, residents told their government they prefer to stick with the local department.
By Matt Skoufalos
The people of Pennsauken spoke loudly and clearly, and their elected officials listened.
Township leaders, who had commissioned a feasibility study examining the cost savings of merging local police with the Camden County force, voted unanimously against the plan after public outcry at government meetings and a flood of phone calls and e-mails.
“Money, even though it was a savings, was not the primary scope for us,” said Pennsauken Mayor Rick Taylor.
“We felt that the attitude of our residents and their safety was the priority.
“[A merger] may be beneficial financially, but as far as the mindset of our residents, they were pleased with our police, as with our EMT’s and our firemen, and we felt it was an easy decision to make,” Taylor said.
“Once you give up your police department, you kind of give up some identity,” he said. “We’d be losing our identity as Pennsauken.”
‘You have to listen to your residents’
Despite the allure of financial savings in a time of diminishing state aid, the mayor said “there’s no price tag” that can be placed on a strong attitude of public safety.
Although most of his residents are dollar-focused, he said, they’re willing to spend for the police protection that they enjoy.
“Any time you’re talking about a million dollars, you’re talking about a significant amount of money,” Taylor said.
“You had 150 residents show up and say, ‘We feel safe; we like our police; we relate to our police, we feel like we’re not going to do any better with a county police force as opposed to our own.’
“If that’s their priority, we as elected officials hear them,” he said. “Safety may not be compromised had we gone with the county, but the mindset of our residents would be that it was compromised.”
Pennsauken police are under contract until 2018, Taylor said, and “numbers aren’t the priority right now.” In a few years, however, if state aid continues to decrease, “we might have to make some decisions.
“We have the responsibility to balance taxes with services,” the mayor said. “Other towns may be faced with the same thing, but I think you have to listen to your residents.
“You can’t put a price on the attitude of security that your residents have, and that was our mantra that we had when we went into discussing this,” Taylor said. “If these people feel safe, that means they’re satisfied, and if they’re satisfied, we’re satisfied.”
Despite not opting to contract with the Camden County Police, the report prepared for the county government by The Cordero Group did identify a handful of issues upon which Taylor believes the Pennsauken police department could improve.
“Some of the things we read in the report we thought weren’t totally accurate, and [were]in some terms, skewed figures,” he said. “By the same token, there were some things we shared with our police and said, ‘Look, this could make you a better police force.’
“The key thing that we did that we’re very proud of is that we promised our police that the minute we got the report we would share it with them,” Taylor said. “We weren’t trying to run an end-run; no deals were made.”
‘Still an open door’
The county will continue to offer opportunities for local governments to join the police force, said Camden County Freeholder Director Louis F. Cappelli, Jr., who seemed unfazed by the response from Pennsauken.
“This, as we said from Day One, is a service we will provide to municipalities,” Cappelli, Jr. said. “If other towns want to discuss it, we’re open to it.
“We were very confident that we could provide a policing service to Pennsauken Township that would have been a lot cheaper than the service they have right now and a lot more efficient,” he said.
“It’s up to the governing body of Pennsauken to decide what kind of service they can provide for their residents.”
Cappelli, Jr. said that local municipalities “still [have]an open door” to join the county police force, but that its focus will remain on making the Camden City Metro Division as strong as possible.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the men and women that work for our Metro Division,” he said. “They’re doing an outstanding job, and the residents of Camden City are getting a service that they deserve.”