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Prosecutor Will Appeal Freeholder Rebuff 3.8.2006

By Rick Racela

CREST HAVEN — County Prosecutor Robert Taylor informed freeholders March 1 that he will petition the court to order them to meet his “funding demands” in their 2006 budget.
Those demands could cost as much as $9 million over a three-year period, according to county Administrator Stephen O’Connor.
Taylor’s 55-page report gave freeholders two weeks notice and suggested they meet on the issues and give him an opportunity to address them.
Neither is likely to happen.
O’Connor told this newspaper Monday that most of the freeholders hadn’t seen the notice yet, but, unless they called a special meeting, the next opportunity for an executive session was after the regular meeting of March 14.
That’s the day the final budget is due to be adopted. Taylor is scheduled to file his application the next day.
The single big ticket item is for $3.3 million to convert the unused third floor of the county courthouse for new Prosecutor office space, “or 19,000 square feet of centrally located office space.” That would still leave the laboratory, storage space and narcotics task force in current quarters, he said.
Finishing off the third floor has been a courts’ proposal for several years, but no action was taken.
 Taylor also asks for 15 additional personnel this year — 10 investigators two assistant prosecutors, a chemist, two secretaries and one evidence lab technician —  and the various equipment they would need, from guns, handcuffs, and cars to computers. Salaries for the 16 would run over a half-million dollars, according to an early county budget document.
But Taylor’s application asks for another four investigators and two agents in 2007 and four investigators and one agent in 2008 for a total of 18 investigators and three agents.
And he requests another two assistant prosecutors in 2007.
All this would be part of reorganizations of the investigative and legal staffs.
Finally,  he requests another $456,860 in “additional pay” for current staff this year.
Speculation is that Assignment Judge Valerie Armstrong would conduct this hearing in   several months and issue any consent order by summer, so any new hires would be on board for less than six months of this  year.
Thus the full impact of the cost of these demands, if Judge Armstrong grants them, would not be felt until next year, and thereafter.
One need look only to neighboring Cumberland County to get an idea of how this could go down.
It filed a similar Bigley Application in January, 2005, and the settlement awarded it a total of 51 additional employes, phased in over three years, and a permanent office within four years.
“Bigley” refers to Camden County Prosecutor Donald Bigley whose appeal of that county’s freeholder appropriation  won in the state Supreme Court in 1969, setting the precedent.
Unless something heads off this action, Taylor said the Prosecutor’s office would be  represented by himself, First Assistant J. David Meyer, and representatives of the state Attorney General’s Office, which approved and strongly endorsed Taylor’s application.
O’Connor said  the county will have to “r.f.p.” (request for proposals) for “outside expertise” to represent it.
Asked how the county would fund an order for additional prosecutor expenses, O’Connor said “I suspect out of surplus this year and future budgets would require a significant increase in the tax levy.”
There are a number of points of view on the controversy.
Some see it as plain and simple politics: Democrat Taylor trying to build a department while Republican freeholders resist.
Conspiracy theorists even see this as a Democratic move to become the “law and order party” to the advantage of its own freeholder candidate, who has yet to be named.
But some believe the Prosecutor’s office has been routinely underfunded and understaffed for years. Taylor’s application attempts to document that.
It includes a December 2005 “staff analysis” by the Research and Evaluation Section of the Division of Criminal Justice of the state Department of Law and Public Safety.
That compares the local Prosecutor’s office with those of Salem and Somerset counties and concludes Cape May County’s staff is handling more cases per attorney than the others, making more arrests per detective than the others, but is funded almost 50 percent less than the average of the other two counties.
The Dec. 5, 2005 memorandum from Thomas J. Fisken, deputy chief of the Prosecutors Supervision and Coordination Bureau of the Division of Criminal Justice, terms this county’s Prosecutor office as “in severe financial difficulties…underfunded for years, severely hampering its ability to operate efficiently.”
It says this county spends 2.5 percent of its budget on the Prosecutor’s Office, compared to a 4.8 percent statewide average.
“I’m not sure that is comparing apples to apples,” commented O’Connor.  “I don’t know the methodology.  Is the police academy or emergency management part of the Prosecutor’s office? Does it include health benefits, which is another $1.3 million?
“It’s always skewed to use county budget comparisons,” said O’Connor.  “They do not provide identical services.”
Taylor has argued that his office has increased responsibilities due to enforcement of Megan’s Law, “alarming drug trends,” new counter terrorism and Homeland Security responsibilities, and other factors, all culminating in a 5 percent increase in the county crime rate last year.
Although the county’s rejection of Taylor’s requests was not certain until it introduced its budget Jan. 24, he asked the state Attorney General for permission to file the Bigley Application in November 2005, “if freeholders did not correct the funding and staffing deficiencies of the Prosecutor’s Office.”
The attorney general approved it Dec. 8, referring to the Prosecutor’s “funding deficiencies.”
Taylor, 58, was appointed to a five-year term as prosecutor in October, 2004.  He was county Democratic chairman from 1996 to 1998 and ran unsuccessfully for freeholder in  1998. He’s a county native and a graduate of Middle Township High School, with a law degree from Washington & Lee University.
Contact Zelnik at (609) 886-8600 Ext 27 or: jzelnik@cmcherald.com

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