Frenchtown, N.J.’s, mayor and council have improved the pay scale for police officers, but some residents believe it is too little, too late.
The issue was discussed with some heat at the Dec. 19 borough council meeting.
The three-man police force recently lost two officers to better-paying jobs elsewhere, and Police Chief Al Kurylka is retiring in September.
One new cop was hired that night, and the borough is interviewing promising candidates for the other patrolman job, said Mayor Brad Myhre.
One of the recently departed police officers, Sgt. Robert Young, had been seen as a likely successor to the chief, but he took a police job in Holland Township. Myhre said he’d been told that Young will be getting $17,000 more over two years.
Myhre responded to wide-spread suspicion, some of it expressed on Facebook, that the borough plans to disband the police department.
He said, “We are committed to having a police department. Let there be no doubt.”
He said a two-year contract has been negotiated with the PBA that establishes a step system that starts a rookie at $38,000, or someone with a year’s experience at $42,000, and reaches $69,000 over nine years. Previously, new officers started at $38,000 to $40,000, depending on experience and, in recent years, received raises ranging from zero to 2 percent. There were no steps.
Furthermore, the borough provided a stipend for the sergeantcy, is granting police department requests for a new SUV, better body and car cameras and costly Livescan fingerprinting equipment.
To temporarily cope with the loss of “two quality people,” the borough will get State Police coverage, which won’t cost the borough anything because its population is under 5,000, Myhre said. Referring to the 2018 budget increase of almost 2 percent, Myhre said that almost 35 percent of the increase was dedicated to the police department. He said that if the residents want to exceed the state-imposed 2 percent ceiling on property taxes, a referendum would be necessary.
Although she expressed affection for her alma mater, resident Jan Fisher suggested that perhaps less money could be spent at the borough school in order to spend more on the police department. The school and the borough are separate entities, but they do tax the same population. She said the police department is necessary to deal with the high volume of traffic that passes through the borough.
Frenchtown resident and co-owner of Sunbeam General Store Ben Duensing said to the mayor and council, “Under your term we lost the entire police department, so I think you guys owe us a little bit more of an explanation of what happened.”
Myhre said Frenchtown has been losing officers for nearly a decade, but Frenchtown’s problem is acute right now because there is lots of competition for police officers. Now that the economy is strong, many police officers are retiring, and there are too few new officers to replace them. That’s because law-enforcement class sizes had been reduced during the recession. Myhre said some candidates won’t take a job unless they see a path to a nearly $100,000 salary.
Duensing said the borough has lost “somebody who’s close to all the kids in the town and to all the business owners; he’s part of this community, and you couldn’t find money to try to retain him. There wasn’t a counter offer.”
“Borough Council’s view is that it’s all financial,” he said, but there is also “a lack of trust.” He asked whether the mayor had asked Holland about policing Frenchtown, “and that got back to him.”
Myhre said the consolidation of police and other borough functions comes up all the time. “Everyone’s trying to live with the 2 percent budget cap” and deal with reductions in state aid.
Citing the current absence of trained patrol officers, resident Kristen Lambert said, “You were extremely shortsighted to let Sgt. Young go.”
Councilwoman Tami Peterson said when Young gave notice “we couldn’t go and counter-offer him.” The mayor doesn’t have the flexibility and authority of a CEO. The contract would have to be reworked, and the negotiations process for the current contract took eight months, she said.
Liebtag said negotiations will begin on a new police contract in 2019, and “we’ll try to improve the step system. We hear you, and we are trying to be as competitive as possible.”
Mike Tyksinski, owner of Frenchtown Home & Hardware, praised the efforts of Liebtag and Myhre and suggested pointedly that “When someone is on the payroll of a community, and takes time to chat idly in a way that creates a divide in the community, I have to question that person’s true commitment to the community.”
Kandy Ferree, managing director of ArtYard, said, “Robert’s choice was to leave,” and she supports that. However in her own case, she took a significant cut in pay to take her current job because the cares about the community. Now, “we have to go forward,” she said.
Soon to have seniority in the new police force is Erik Ecckles, who was introduced at the beginning of the meeting. He has experience on the Franklin Township police force and goes on the payroll Dec. 31. Ecckles will be sworn in at the January reorganization meeting, but he needs additional training and orientation before he can begin patrolling the borough.