PATERSON, NJ – In an effort to free up police officers to fight crime, the City Council revised the municipal budget Friday night to boost the number of school crossing guards from 1o6 to 140.
For years, Paterson has been assigning police officers to fill vacant school crossing posts, a practice that dramatically escalated last year when the city laid off 16 crossing guards. Officials and residents have complained that reassigning the cops for an hour in the morning and afternoon has left Paterson vulnerable to criminals and resulted in lengthy delays when citizens call for police service.
“I don’t want to hear that a police officer is not available again,’’ said Councilman Aslon Goow,who proposed funding the full complement of 140 crossing guards.
But residents should not expect to see any change in school crossing practices overnight. Under the terms of agreement that provides Paterson with $21 million in transitional aid, the city must get permission from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) before it hires anyone.
Last fall, the state denied Paterson’s requests to rehire 37 police officers and dozens of part-time evening program recreation workers, saying it would not approve any additions to the payroll until the city balanced its proposed 2012 budget. At present, the budget still has a deficit of about $4.5 million – including cuts made on Friday night - and officials say they believe they cannot close the gap without additional aid from the state, something Trenton says it won’t provide.
The preliminary budget had $1.2 million earmarked for the salaries of 106 crossing guards. Administration officials told the council on Friday night that filling all 140 crossing guard jobs would cost an extra $400,000.
In the aftermath of last year’s layoffs, the city has not always been able to fill vacant crossing guard posts. In September, two young girls crossing a street with their father were hit by a car on their way home from school at Madison and 3rd avenues, a corner where officials were not able to fill a crossing guard post that day.
On Friday night, the council agreed to use savings from other police department budget cuts to fund the crossing guards. One area the council had reduced was the money set aside to hire 13 communications officers.
Police Director Glenn Brown told the council he wanted to increase the number of civilians working in the police communications center from 27 to 40. Brown said that would allow him to assign police officers working in the communications room to duties that would help fight crime. Using higher-paid police officers for duties that could be handled by civilians is a “sore spot” with the state, the director said.
But officials said Paterson has not yet applied to the state to hire the extra civilians for communications. As a result, the council eliminated funding for 10 of the proposed 13 new communications workers from the budget.
During Friday’s hearing, the city council also struck from the budget $174,630 that had been set aside for the salary of one of Paterson’s three deputy police chiefs. That’s the result of a revision of the police hierarchy that’s being implemented as part of James Wittig’s recent retirement from the police chief’s job.
Instead of having one chief and three deputies, the department will have one chief and two deputies, officials said. At present, deputy chief William Fraher is serving as acting chief under a 30-day appointment that expires at the end of this month. After that, the mayor will appoint someone as acting chief for up to six months while the city seeks a permanent replacement for Wittig, officials said.