The Chestertown Police Department will remain in its current configuration at least until March 2020. The Chestertown Council, in a 4-1 vote at its Oct. 7 meeting, agreed to postpone any decision on restructuring the department until that date. Lt. John Dolgos, the acting chief appointed after the resignation of former Chief Adrian Baker, will remain in command of the department.
Councilman Marty Stetson, a former Chestertown police chief, cast the dissenting vote after providing an extensive critique of the quality of policing in Chestertown over the past two decades. Stetson is retiring as a councilman at the end of this year.
Mayor Presents CPD Options
The vote followed a presentation by Mayor Chris Cerino, in which he laid out the budgetary considerations that led him to suggest the possibility of closing the town police and putting the Kent County Sheriff’s office in charge of public safety within town limits. That suggestion, which Cerino characterized as “the nuclear option,” drew a large crowd to the meeting, which was held in the upstairs meeting room of town hall to accommodate the turnout.
In a PowerPoint presentation, Cerino pointed out that public safety makes up the single largest slice of the town’s annual outlay, amounting to $1.6 million, or 47% of the Fiscal 2020 budget. That figure has increased by 33%, or $462,000, since 2009, while the town’s property tax revenues, which make up 2/3 of the town’s income, remain essentially flat. Because of growing expenses in all areas, the town’s current budget included no raises for town staff, including police officers, and, for the sixth straight year, no funding for capital projects such as street repair. Cerino said the council had consistently “kicked the can down the road” as far as infrastructure repairs, rather than raising taxes.
Cerino made it a particular point to respond to allegations on social media that the cost of the town-owned marina was the main factor in the town’s budget crunch. He said the marina, which the town acquired two years before he became Mayor, was in extremely poor condition and needed a major upgrade if it were to attract boaters and other tourists. The renovations have been paid for almost entirely by federal and state grants, he said, while the annual debt service on the original purchase is about $145,000. The revenue from the marina has come close to matching that amount for the first time this year.
Additional budget pressures Cerino cited include a decline in real estate tax revenues, in part because many property owners successfully appealed their increased assessments. Also, Kent County is one of only two in the state that doesn’t provide local municipalities with a tax differential or rebate to compensate the towns for services such as police protection, planning and zoning, and street repairs that the town provides within its boundaries. “I think we’re getting ripped off,” he said, noting that the town has roughly a quarter of the population of the county and provides a proportionate share of the tax revenues.
Baker Replacement Handled “Very Clunkily”
Following the resignation of Baker, who took a position as head of the Maryland Natural Resources Police, Cerino said he felt it was a good time to reassess the public safety portion of the budget.
As part of that reassessment, he had two conversations with Sheriff John Price to examine the possibilities. He said he went directly to the sheriff because he has “no working relationship” with the county commissioners. Following those conversations, he said, he identified four options: leave the department as it is and cut expenses elsewhere in the budget; find savings within the police department budget, possibly including a cut in the number of officers; merge resources with the Sheriff’s office, at a savings of about $600,000, or close the department entirely and leave policing to the county. Cerino said while he had to consider the latter option, it would be “the worst possible choice,” because the Sheriff’s department is not currently able to handle that responsibility, and “nobody wants it.”
Cerino said the council had responded “very clunkily” to Baker’s resignation, twice going into closed sessions at Stetson’s request. During those sessions, they reportedly discussed bringing in Captain Brian Kirby of the Sheriff’s office as a consultant to oversee the town police force until a permanent chief is appointed. Cerino said it would have been better to address the issue openly from the start. Now, with council elections a month away, at least one and possibly two new council members will be chosen. Because of that, Cerino said the decision on the police department should wait until January when the new council will be seated. He suggested carrying on with the police force as currently constituted through the end of February and setting up a task force in March to examine the long-term options facing the town. He asked the other council members for their views on the suggestion.
Councilman David Foster said he was working with the county commissioners to see if the tax differential could be reinstated, giving the town a less constrained budget. He said the town needs to be able to create a budget reserve to be prepared for future disasters. He noted that with the retirement of Stetson at the end of this year, the council will lose its one member with practical police experience.
Councilwoman Linda Kuiper, whose seat is up for election this fall, said that the council stands to lose as much as 24 years of experience if she and Stetson are both gone after January. She said it would be better for the council to make the decision on the police before the end of the year.
Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver said the town needs to explore ways to increase its revenues. He said the town police need to be maintained at their present level and noted that the town and county have different requirements in terms of law enforcement. He praised the town police for their rapid response to calls for service in the community. “I’m willing to talk to anyone with ideas on how to address the problem,” he said.
Quality of Policing v. Budget
Stetson said there would be significant advantages in merging the town police with the county Sheriff. He said the quality of policing in Chestertown was not what it should have been the last 20 years, and that the police “just haven’t had the right direction.” Another issue is that the town does not have up-to-date equipment, such as electronic fingerprinting, while the Sheriff’s office does. “My hope was to get Captain Kirby to come in and take over the police department and see what he could do to straighten it out,” he said.
Stetson said the Sheriff told him the town could save $800,000 annually if it transferred control of the local police to the Sheriff’s office.
“People don’t care what color the uniform is, they just want a competent person to show up” when they have an emergency, Stetson remarked.
He said he had given Cerino names of several people in law enforcement who could corroborate his statements about the police department. He said he was in favor of making a move before the first of the year. There was an audible murmur of dissent from the audience at one point when Stetson appeared to question the commitment of the town police to “doing the job right.”
Cerino said the issue was not the job performance of the police, but the budget. He said he didn’t want to leave Dolgos and the town police “in limbo” while the decision was being made. He suggested keeping the force at its current size with Dolgos in command for 5 to 6 months while the council explored the question. He asked for a motion to that effect, which Foster made, noting that the time could be used to gather advice on possible efficiencies. Tolliver seconded the motion, and it passed by a 4-1 vote. Stetson cast the single opposing vote.
After the vote, Cerino opened the floor to comments from the audience. Allen Schauber of the Kent-Queen Anne’s Rescue Squad praised the town police for their speedy response to emergencies, noting that an officer is almost always on the scene before ambulances arrive. Other residents commented on the need to improve the town’s economy to help increase revenues.
In other business, the council voted to close two downtown streets during the Farmers Market, Saturday mornings until December, The council also made several appointments to town commissions. Look for a fuller account of these issues in a forthcoming Chestertown Spy article.
# # #