Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino is weighing several options to rein in the public safety budget, which include shuttering the Chestertown Police Department.
“The police department is the largest chunk of our budget,”Cerino said in an interview with the Spy on Monday.
He said rising costs to maintain CPD over the years have far outpaced real estate tax revenue, and now “efficiencies” must be found to bring costs under control and free up money for infrastructure needs that are long overdue.
“We have continually kicked the can down the road,” he said.
In the last two years the town has raised property taxes by six cents in a struggle to balance the budget and meet $145,000 in annual bond payments on the marina, which Cerino inherited when he took office in 2014.
Options Under Consideration
The “nuclear option” is to shut down CPD and leave it to the county to provide the police protection Cerino says the town pays for twice — due to the absence of a tax differential from the county.
The differential is a rebate on property taxes town residents pay the county for services like police, street cleaning and planning & zoning, which the town provides and pays for out of its own budget.
The differential exists in the vast majority of Maryland counties in the form of a lower county tax rate to town residents or a direct cash payout to municipalities. But there are a few exceptions, and Kent is one of the few counties that doesn’t pay a differential to its municipalities.
The absence of a differential for Chestertown came to a head this summer at a Kent Commissioners’ meeting when Cerino argued that most municipalities in Maryland get some form of compensation for maintaining their own police force.
Also on the table is “to shave $250,000 from the police budget.” To accomplish this CPD staff would be trimmed from 12 to 10 officers. The chief would be included in the 10 that remain.
Cerino has also considered if CPD could become a branch of the Sheriff’s Department through a “cooperative agreement.” The town would pay a flat fee to the county for staff the Sheriff “deems necessary to keep the [same] coverage.” This option could save the town $600,000 annually.
But in the interim, Cerino said the Sheriff’s Department could give Chestertown a “loaner” officer to oversee CPD at the Sheriff’s expense.
“We could try it for a year,” Cerino said.
Cerino said he will lay out the options in open session at the Oct. 7 council meeting.
There is speculation in the law enforcement community that Kent County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Kirby is the most likely choice to be the “loaner” or the one to assume command if CPD were to become a branch of the Sheriff’s Department. Kirby is second-in-command under Sheriff John Price.
Cerino said the options are “all conceptual” at this point but the need to shore up the budget was not — because the annual fund balance over the years has been inadequate to fund capital improvements.
Stetson Architect of Loaner Plan
After a closed session of the Chestertown Council on Sept. 3, it was disclosed that there was discussion to bring in a “consultant” to oversee CPD, but town officials didn’t mention Kirby by name.
The mention of a “consultant” after the Sept. 3 session meeting — and Ward 4 Councilman Marty Stetson’s call for a second closed session on Sept. 16 — is leading speculation that Stetson, a former Chestertown police chief whom both Price and Kirby served under, is the architect of the “loaner” plan.
Stetson announced recently that he will not seek another term.
It is unclear whether the installation of Kirby to head CPD would spark any statutory conflicts if he remains on the Sheriff’s payroll. The Sheriff’s Department is led by an elected official and CPD is led by a police chief appointed by the Town of Chestertown.
Questions remain whether the Sheriff’s oversight of CPD would require an amendment to the town charter, and the Kent Commissioners would also need to approve any restructuring of the Sheriff’s Department to integrate any of its resources with CPD.
The Town Charter spells out the process to appoint a police chief, and no language exists giving leeway to appoint members of an outside agency to assume command of the rank-and-file.
“The Chief of Police shall be appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by a majority vote of the Town Council in accordance with the provisions of the Town Charter. The Police Chief’s compensation shall be determined by the Town Council,” according to sections 134-3 and 134-4 of the Town Charter. “The chain of command shall descend from the Chief of Police through the authorized ranks in order of seniority of rank and seniority within rank.”