Former Chestertown councilman Jim Gatto appeared at the Oct. 21 council meeting to suggest a way for the town to reach a decision on the future of the police department, which has been the subject of some controversy since the resignation of former chief Adrian Baker.
Gatto, who appeared at the end of the meeting, recommended that the town work with the Institute for Governmental Service and Research, a University of Maryland program that provides research and advisory service to governments and community organizations. Gatto said he used the Institute’s services regularly when he was working. He said the Institute would be an ideal resource for the task force Mayor Chris Cerino has proposed to explore the options facing the town.
At the Oct. 7 council meeting, the council voted to leave interim Chief John Dolgos in place until February 2020, at which point one or two new council members will be in place. Options to be explored run the range from leaving the police department essentially unchanged to partnering in some way with the Kent County Sheriff’s office to eliminating the town police altogether. The issue arose in light of the high cost of the department as currently constituted, roughly 47% of the town’s annual budget at $1.6 million. A decision on a new permanent chief was also put off until that date. Dolgos has applied for the permanent appointment.
Gatto described the Institute as “a perfect professional organization to assist” in the study of the future of the town police. “They are made up of professors and grad students at the University of Maryland, so the cost is minimal,” he said. He said it would be well worth the investment considering the critical role of the police in the town’s culture.
Gatto also offered some background on the police budget, dating from his service with a commission exploring the need for a new police station several years ago. He said he rode in the back seat of a police car and listened to Sheriff John Price and Chief Baker as they drove to visit police facilities in other communities around the state. Among the topics of their conversation was the opioid epidemic and how local law enforcement would respond to it. He said the goal at the time was to upgrade the local police force to a 24-7 operation, with two officers on duty at any given time. He said the cost was expected to level off, but that was before the long-term impact of the Great Recession became apparent with the loss of tax revenue to local government, both on the county and town level. “So we got hit at the same time we’re trying to beef up our security,” he said. He noted that the county had experienced seven overdoses in October, adding that the cost of drug addiction to the community also includes crimes committed by addicts trying to support their habits.
At one point, Gatto said, the town was considering building a joint facility for the town police and the Sheriff’s office, sharing equipment and space to save on the cost for both. That idea was dropped when the building at 600 High Street became available at a “very inexpensive” cost and the town purchased it for its new police headquarters. But the “collapse” of the local real estate market to recover from the recession as quickly as other parts of the state has left the town looking for the resources to fund the police budget along with other programs and services. Local realtors are anticipating an upturn, he said, but it will take time.
“The police do an exceptional amount of work,” Gatto said, noting that officers respond to about 35 calls a day on average. He cited a personal experience involving a home invasion where two officers responded to his call at 2 a.m. and took “an extreme amount of care” to handle “an individual who was off his meds” and threatening to harm Gatto and his wife. “That could have been totally different if there was only one officer,” he said.
Gatto said the police chief’s monthly report would be a good opportunity for the council to ask questions on such subjects as how the police are prepared for situations such as an active shooter at one of the public schools or at Washington College. “You guys should know that,” he said. “We do have a plan for that,” he added. He gave other examples such as how the police interact with senior citizens, or how they patrol recently annexed communities. “These are questions that should be coming from you to the police chief, to give him directions on where to go,” he said. “Our crime situation has been fairly level,” Gatto said, suggesting that the council should invite comparisons to other towns when looking into questions such as the amount of police overtime.
He concluded by urging the council to take its time to explore solutions to the police issues, as long as a year if necessary. “There are opportunities for us, with good professional help, to come up with a good positive solution.” He reiterated his recommendation that the town consults the Institute for Governmental Service and Research.
Cerino said a major point to note is the difference between the tax rates of Chestertown and other Shore communities, many of which are at $0.70 per $100 assessed value compared to Chestertown’s $0.43. Others have significant tax differential support from their counties, which he said he is not optimistic about obtaining from the Kent County commissioners. “We jacked up the price, but we didn’t have the tax revenues to match the buildup, and now we’re kind of stuck in the middle,” he said.
Gatto said that a contributing factor was the town’s raising the salary rate for officers to compete with other localities, so it didn’t lose officers to nearby towns after paying for their training.
Town Manager Bill Ingersoll added that the town’s adoption of LEOPS pension plan for its officers, which is as much as 38% of their salaries. “I think LEOPS single-handedly crushed the budget,” he said.
Also at the meeting, the council appointed Connie Schroth to the Tree Committee and John Hutchinson to the Planning Commission. Cerino nominated Kurt Smith to the Historic District Commission. And the council approved a letter of support for the Kent County Historical Society in a grant application for the Maryland Historical Trust.