The top brass of the Newark Police Department appeared before the municipal council Tuesday to discuss the agency’s proposed budget for 2012, by far the largest component of the city’s $592 million spending plan.
The council is in the midst of reviewing the individual budgets for each of the city’s agencies ahead of a vote on the overall city budget introduced by Mayor Cory Booker several months ago.
Council members praised Chief Sheilah Coley and Police Director Samuel DeMaio for making do with staffing levels that are at historic lows in the wake of cost-cutting measures enacted after the 2008 economic meltdown.
This year’s budget would rise 1.5 percent from last year, to $132 million, 97 percent of which would be consumed by personnel expenses. Many non-personnel expenses, such as certain types of equipment, are paid for through grants, which is why the percentage of the budget going to wages and salaries is so high, DeMaio said.
Still, manpower remains at historic lows since more than 100 officers were laid off a few years ago. There are now just 1,090 sworn officers and 293 civilian personnel in a department that once boasted as many as 1,700 officers.
Despite decreases in manpower, however, overtime pay continues a five-year decline, to just $4 million this year versus nearly $20 million in 2007. Most overtime is generated by city detectives performing homicide investigations, but since a task force was created with the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, much of that overtime is now paid by the county. The NPD has also sought reimbursements from outside agencies, like NJ Transit, that city police periodically assist.
The department has also reined in costs by scheduling staff more flexibly depending on the time of year. Crime occurs at different times of the day depending on the season, so shifts are adjusted to reflect that, DeMaio said. The department also continues to work to get more officers on patrol, pulling ranking members off the desk and placing them on the street.
DeMaio also ended a practice that prohibited one precinct from backing up another precinct that was low on manpower during a particular shift, a situation the shorthanded precincts used to address by simply approving more overtime.
Ultimately, DeMaio said, he would like to hire even more civilian employees to handle administrative tasks and traffic issues like ticketing so even more sworn officers can patrol.
DeMaio also said the department has cracked down on officers who are “booked off” -- temporarily off active duty due to injury -- but who are actually healthy.
“We’ve seen guys coming into barbecues carrying cases of beer who were supposedly hurt,” DeMaio said.
Responding to council queries regarding police protection at the city’s entertainment venues like NJPAC and Prudential Arena -- “which our residents don’t go to,” Quintana said -- DeMaio admitted the city gets no outside funding for that protection.
The department is also on pace to seize more guns than ever before this year, DeMaio said. Since Jan. 1, the NPD has seized 600 weapons by patrolling heavily in areas that historically have been plagued by shootings. The department expects to get about 1,000 guns in all by the end of the year.
Also Tuesday, the council and the mayor’s office again exchanged sharp words, this time over Booker declining to discuss the budget for his own office in person with the governing body.
“We said before to the mayor that we needed him to be here,” said Councilman-at-Large Luis Quintana. “I’m not concerned about national issues, I’m concerned about issues right here,” a dig referring to Booker’s work on behalf of the national Democratic Party.
Other council members Tuesday echoed Quintana’s sentiment, with the council agreeing to defer any discussion -- or approval of -- the mayor’s office budget until Booker appears before the council to answer questions. Quintana even said he would consider a no-confidence vote regarding Booker if he did not appear.
“I need the mayor to sit right here and answer very specific questions, about what he pulls the trigger on” in terms of city administration initiatives, Central Ward Councilman Darrin Sharif said.
In a statement, Booker’s chief of staff Modia Butler fired back, accusing the council of manufacturing a controversy as a way to deflect the mayor’s previous criticisms of council spending.
“No Newark mayor has personally delivered this particular presentation to council in 25 years and perhaps much longer,” Butler said. “Yet some council members now want to play politics with this non-issue despite having all the information they need to make a decision as well as the appropriate senior staff on hand to answer any questions that may arise.”
“Maybe its theatrics are intended to deflect from the more serious issues that lay ahead of this council, or perhaps it's retribution for the Booker administration's tough proposals to reign in wasteful council spending. While this political theater was underway, Mayor Booker was out talking with and listening to residents, a great many of whom expressed their discontent with this council's habit of dodging the difficult decisions that are vital to Newark's future,” Butler also said.