BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - A room full of nearly 200 Berkeley Heights residents, police officers, PBA supporters and other town officials packed Town Hall on Tuesday night to speak in opposition to the proposed lay off of six township employees in order to save $331,000 in the upcoming budget. Most were specifically not in favor of laying off two police officers, which would bring the department down to 21 active officers.
Many people cited concerns about safety and timeliness of officers to report to an emergency with a reduced staff. Police Chief David Zager maintained that it was his intention to provide the finest of quality service to Berkeley Heights just as the department has done in the past. He continued, saying that based on the amount of people in the town that there should actually be 26 police officers.
"We can't afford this loss...The current services we provide won't be able to be carried through in the future if this goes through," Zager said.
He also said that certain programs like the DARE program that is currently in operation in Berkeley Heights schools will be gone with a shortened staff. Zager also pointed out that the two officers that are planned to be let go, which are the two most recently employed officers, provide an outstanding service to the town. "This council needs to find another way to save money without impacting public safety," Zager concluded.
Berkeley Heights resident Vince Bury spoke at the meeting and asked if the safety of the town will be impacted with a loss in police manpower. After council delayed to answer, Mayor Robert Woodruff replied, saying "Maybe it will. Maybe it won't." He said that there is no way of knowing that answer for sure, much to the dismay of almost every member of the public in the room.
Other members of the public were unhappy about the town not negotiating properly with the PBA Unions. Union County Prosecutor Ted Romankow said that the unions want to negotiate in good faith in order to protect the public and for the town to have an effective police department. He also mentioned that Berkeley Heights and New Providence have seen raising crime rates in recent years, which is not consistent with the majority of Union County. Romankow stressed to the Council that laying off additional officers will seriously jeopardize the community.
Union member Michael Broderick also spoke at the meeting and complained that the Council has not offered them anything to negotiate with. He told the Council that he would be more than happy to have a meeting with them and other union members in order to save money in the budget without laying off town employees.
Residents also expressed their concerns. Oakland Street resident Brenda Belleville said that sometimes safety is taken for granted in the town and that is a good thing because of the quality of services that the police department provides. "I ask that you do everything in your power to keep our officers in the street because this really is a great place to live," Belleville said.
Mayor Woodruff assured the public that the Council had no intention of laying off any employees at Tuesday night's meeting. He said that he respects everyone's concerns.
It was mentioned that the Council may be able to save $200,000, which is currently being used in reserve for uncollected taxes. That may be a way to save money, but the additional $131,000 needed to keep the six township employees would still be missing from the budget.
Before the public comments section of the meeting, the Council had a discussion about the budget issues. The Council members mentioned that in addition to the savings from laying off six township employees, there are also plans to reduce employee furloughs, change employee health plans, and not give any raises to township employees for the upcoming year. None of these strategies have been discussed with or approved by the unions thus far.
Councilmen John Bonacci and Gerald Nelson were not in favor of laying off township employees to save money in the budget. Both insisted that there are other ways for the town to save this money. Bonacci said that a presentation should be given where the revenues match the expenditures in the budget; something that has not been done yet. He even stood up from his chair at one point in the meeting and said that it is the responsibility of the Council to pass a fair, reasonable budget. "Who is actually running this budget? It isn't me." Bonacci said -- a statement that received loud applause from the public.