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Thursday, July 25, 2024

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Freeholders Stuck in the 80s-Pay Hikes Won’t Solve More County Crimes

By Rick Racela

County Prosecutor Robert Taylor is like the guy at the craps table who rolls three sevens in a row and should have quit while he was ahead.
Much of the general public probably had empathy, even sympathy, for his arguments that his office was overworked and underfunded due to freeholder neglect.
Crime is up, drugs are escalating, and there are new responsibilities to do with homeland security and Megan’s law.
And the freeholders have been stiffing that office for years, the way they have been looking the other way on all sorts of issues, whether it be the refusal to stockpile potassium iodide tablets, to make use of the dormant Viola Naylor house, to repair the deteriorating county zoo. The list is endless.
So Taylor filed a legal action – called Bigley – that asked the court to order freeholders to allocate money to hire more people, to equip them, and to provide additional space. Current quarters in the old Jersey Cape Racquet Club, to which the Prosecutor moved “temporarily” in 1989, have been inadequate for years.
Rather than let a judge decide these issues, and risk him giving away the store, as happened in Cumberland County last year, the county negotiated an agreement with Taylor on those three issues.
Taylor received in this year’s budget, funds for three additional investigators, one additional assistant prosecutor, and two additional part-time secretaries. He and the county also agreed that an independent organization – still to be named – will study the personnel needs of his office.
The prosecutor also got the equipment those people need.
Finally, on the question of additional space, the county will have an architect – still to be named – study that issue plus what’s available on the third floor of the courthouse, which Taylor is eying.
Acting Superior Court Assignment Judge William Todd retains control of the recommendations that will come from the personnel and space studies.
There is little doubt there will be additional help and space for the prosecutor, but it will be distributed over several years, to lessen the impact.
Taylor should have quit then. But he also insisted, and the county is adamantly opposed, on reopening five multi-year collective bargaining agreements so that he can further raise the pay of staff members he says have a higher work load and lower pay scale than the state average and most of the 21 counties.
And this roll of the dice – which will be decided by Judge Todd – looks more like greed than need. The acknowledgement that the staff gets comp time for anything over 35 hours was a public relations disaster. We like to think of our detectives having the persistence of  Columbo, not the time clock focus of Homer Simpson.
All the good feelings that nonpolitical citizens may have felt for an embattled prosecutor – one lone Democrat against five Republican freeholders – have been dissipated by the attempt to raise the pay of a staff that is hardly collecting food stamps.
I have secret photos of prosecutor staff members down on their knees thanking the Almighty for their jobs and benefits.
Taylor has relied largely on statewide salary comparisons to justify the pay hikes he wants for his people.  It is a point, but I doubt it will carry the day with Judge Todd.  It looks like Taylor has rolled box cars, not a seven.
The Legislature and the courts have held that freeholders are responsible to fund a prosecutor to the extent necessary for him to do his job properly.  It is easy to understand staff, equipment and space needs.  But there is little indication additional pay hikes will affect performance.
In addition to that philosophical point, which Judge Todd must ponder, there also are some pesky questions to do with how the judge can get involved with multi-year contracts since Bigley applies only to the current year.
The freeholders – two of them, anyway, Dan Beyel and Jerry Thornton – managed to sound outraged last week at the prosecutor’s Bigley challenge. Their comments were absurd.
Thornton said “all will suffer” because of Taylor’s actions.  All the while he sat on a $16-million cash surplus. The county tax rate – the main thing freeholders care about – will be reduced again next year, despite Prosecutor Taylor.
Beyel charged Taylor with “lack of communication.” The opposite is true. Taylor offered several times to sit down and talk prior to filing the Bigley action. The freeholders ignored him.
This freeholder board is stuck in the 80s, when Beyel and Thornton were first elected. It shows little awareness of the ongoing changes in this county, some good, some bad. 
This is not an age thing. Ralph Sheets is 74, but, presumably because of a career in law enforcement, he knows the increased needs of the criminal justice system. That’s why he has not joined in the disparagement of the prosecutor’s claims.
This is the last term for Sheets and Ralph Bakley, a retired police officer, and it is a shame neither dares speak out, preferring silence to outspokenness.
The people in this county get the government they vote for.  Admittedly, they have had few opportunities to vote for qualified opposition to the status quo, whether from Republicans in a primary or from Democrats in the general election.
The proliferation of drugs in this county is of greatest concern.  We receive so many reports of arrests for drug violations, one would think the entire population of the county is trying to get high. 
The locals are bad enough.  Now the tourists are coming, and not all of them are the Waltons. The prosecutor’s office will have its hands full. It will do its job with or without additional pay increases.

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