Gov. Christie endorsed a proposal to regionalize Camden County police and fire services Wednesday, assuring local officials at a closed-door meeting that he would help in what would likely be a trying process to dissolve existing departments.
"I absolutely believe this will spread statewide," Christie said of a possible public-safety consolidation after the meeting at Camden County College.
"If Camden County is the first to implement it, you have a burgeoning movement already," he said. "The reality is we don't have the money to do it the way we do now."
Regionalization studies are under way around the state, but Camden County is pushing for a transition that could bring the beginnings of a countywide force in four to six weeks, Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said.
Law enforcement has become a critical issue since Camden laid off half its police and a third of its firefighters in January. Though at least 50 police officers are to be rehired April 1, worries persist about the Camden force's ability to protect residents of the city, considered one of the most dangerous in the country.
The concept of a merged police force has received some push-back from suburban towns concerned that officers would be forced to focus on Camden.
Standing with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), Christie said he expected interest in regionalization to grow statewide as towns felt the effect of rising costs and a new law that limits to 2 percent annually the increase in how much a town may collect in property taxes.
"Whether there needs to be additional incentives, positive or negative, I'm willing to consider those," he said.
Sweeney, a former Gloucester County freeholder, has pushed for a law that would require New Jersey's 566 municipalities to enter into shared-service agreements when they are shown to be feasible or risk losing state aid.
Sweeney, who joked that the only Camden County towns that had voted for Christie were the two so-called "golf course towns," was blunt about the responsibility of municipal leaders to address the state's fiscal crisis.
"If we can't fix this, we, as elected officials, shouldn't be here," he said.
The challenges to the proposed consolidation of public-safety departments are formidable, and skepticism is rife among local officials.
"We're still not hearing specifics" about how it would work, said Dan Keashen, spokesman for Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt. "Until some kind of concrete plan is presented, we're not going to be entertaining any theoretical thoughts."
Closing police departments would likely set off lawsuits filed by unions and require a careful reading of state labor laws designed to protect public workers, said Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley, a supporter of regionalization.
But Christie's pledge to apply the pressure of his office to making the changes gave him hope, Maley said.
"Usually it's just $5,000 for a study," he said. "There's a whole bunch of studies sitting in libraries all over the state."
Committees made up of Camden County elected officials, fire and police chiefs, union representatives, and County Prosecutor Warren Faulk are to begin meeting within a couple weeks, according to the county.
Cappelli left open the possibility that the consolidation could begin with a few towns, with more signing on as the regional force became established.
It is critical that the county not push the idea too hard, too fast, said Jack Fisher, chairman of the New Jersey Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization, and Consolidation Commission, which has spearheaded shared-services efforts.
"You have to let the towns get comfortable with it," Fisher said.
Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or firstname.lastname@example.org.