BRIDGEWATER, NJ - In continuing discussions over proposals made in the 2017 municipal budget, the Bridgewater Township Council heard from the police department on everything from the number of officers required for court sessions to how many vehicles have been purchased.
The budget, as introduced in early March, is set at $43,604,621.89 for 2017, a 0.3 percent increase over the realized 2016 budget of $43,447,365.18.
It calls for an increase in taxes of $17.16 for the average house assessed at $425,900.
The tax levy is increasing 1.92 percent over the 2016 budget.
The council is planning to introduce amendments to the already introduced budget, with an expectation that those will be introduced May 1, with a public hearing May 15, which is expected to be the earliest day on which the council will vote on the budget as a whole.
Councilman Howard Norgalis said he understands it has been recommended in the past that there be four police officers covering court duties, including during the shared time when Somerville uses the Bridgewater court.
Norgalis questioned whether this is still necessary.
“Somerville only wanted three, and the judge said three would be fine,” he said. “Would you consider changing the staffing from four to three for Bridgewater court sessions?”
Bridgewater Township Police Chief Al Nicaretta said that Tuesday court actually only has three officers, and Somerville currently uses three Bridgewater officers for their court sessions as well.
On Wednesday, Nicaretta said, they have four officers on duty because that day tends to be scheduled heavier than others.
“We have extra manpower to field four court officers for the reason of it being our heavier day and more contested cases,” he said.
Nicaretta said it helps because all officers work on Wednesday, whether it is the day or the evening shift.
In addition, Nicaretta said, although there are four officers present for court duty during the early part of the day, as the crowd of people appearing for court cases wanes, they remove one of the officers.
“With the sheer volume of people in the courtroom, I would hate to jeopardize safety,” he said. “We can always react to a situation, but if we can be proactive, it’s better.”
“As the day progresses on Wednesday and there are fewer people around, we do remove one person for patrol, it is not like we have four officers until the end,” he added.
Councilwoman Christine Henderson Rose asked whether there is a possibility that DARE could return to the school district one day.
Nicaretta said he does not think that will happen, but that they are currently looking into a course to re-train the department’s two school resource officers, who could do something for the high school and maybe middle school students.
“I know things hit younger age students, but I don’t know if that’s the correct age to be educating,” he said. “I think it has to be at an older age to really have it sink in and be worth something.”
Rose said one benefit she saw with DARE was that it put an officer in front of younger kids to show that police officers are people they can go to and trust.
“I’m sorry we don’t have that, as well as community policing,” she said. “We gave up a lot because of that.”
Nicaretta said he especially agrees about community policing, and would like to see that come back.
“I think more importantly, we really have to reach the older generation, when they’re becoming adults and getting peer pressure from friends,” he said. “I think that’s what pays off the most.”
Rose said she would also like to see additional officers monitoring certain roads for speeding, but is concerned there are not enough officers available.
“I do think that, for our budgets, we are going to have to look at that going forward,” she said. “I don’t think we have enough police coverage for where this town is now and where it will continue to be.”
Council members also questioned the number of firearms the department is purchasing, as well as ammunition.
Nicaretta said the weapons and other equipment do inherently break, particularly with all the training the officers go through. He said the officers especially go through shooting training to make sure they are capable of handling the weapons in all types of situations.
As to a question about how many police vehicles have been purchased in the past, Nicaretta said they have instituted new policies with certain vehicles assigned to certain personnel, rather than officers just taking whichever cars are available. That way, Nicaretta said, there is more personal responsibility.
“This is making the cars last longer, people are taking better care of them,” he said.
Councilman Matthew Moench asked what the police department is seeing in terms of drug use in Bridgewater, particularly with the recent statewide push for awareness.
“What are we doing to piggy back on efforts, or what things could we be doing?” he asked.
Nicaretta said the county has initiated informational packets during incidents, which gives families and victims information with regard to overdosing and treatments.
“As far as a proactive approach, it’s difficult,” he said. “What I would like to see is the resource officers bringing back programs for high schools.”
As for staffing, Nicaretta said there are currently no vacancies in the department, and they are anticipating two retirements in total this year.
Although amendments to the budget were on the agenda for first reading Monday, the council opted to table them with an expectation of introducing them May 1, once the council has had the chance to determine if there are other amendments they would like to suggest.