(March 29, 2013) Tension over this spring’s impending budget difficulties appears to be on a rapid rise at City Hall, as a request this week to purchase Tasers for the Ocean City Police Department ignited a largely philosophical debate that saw both sides of council’s erstwhile aisle objecting to City Manager David Recor’s assertion of factual information.
“If we try to tackle a $4.5 million budget gap with $11,400 worth of Tasers, we’re going to be here until this time next budget year,” said an exasperated Recor.
Although that number — $4.5 million — is largely speculative, it has become clear that the city’s overall deficit for the upcoming 2014 fiscal year is going to be larger than the $1.5 million Recor had projected earlier this month.
“That $1.5 million was a neutral budget,” Recor explained. “That’s if none of our departments make any further funding requests. But there are obviously other factors being taken into account as we go forward in this process.”
Despite this week’s light legislative agenda, the council spent a great volume of time discussing a request by OCPD Capt. Greg Guiton to buy an additional eight electronic control devices (ECDs), popularly known by the Taser brand name, for his department.
“We currently have eight trained officers who do not have a device,” Guiton said. “We have them certified for ECDs, we just didn’t have funds to purchase the devices. Going into the summer season, we would like to have all of our trained officers with a device.”
Since the police first piloted their use in October 2011, Tasers have been reported by the OCPD to be highly effective in deterring aggressive or confrontational behavior in suspects, and, when such behavior does occur, being able to subdue suspects with the least amount of physical force.
According to a presentation earlier this year, recorded assaults on OCPD officers fell 25 percent in 2012 versus 2011, which the department’s leadership attributes largely to ECD usage.
At a recent roundtable discussion on ECD training, Guiton said his officers “talked about how they felt they were not injured because of the use of the device, or how the suspect was not injured any further than by the use of the device itself and the relatively short recovery period involved.”
The department has 26 devices and says it needs 22 more to be at an ideal level. The OCPD has enough money left over in its budget allocations for the current 2013 fiscal year to buy the eight devices it could use immediately, at a cost of $11,400. This would leave 16 to be purchased in FY14, which begins in July.
However, Councilwoman Margaret Pillas pointed out that, if the current budget’s savings were rolled over into the next fiscal year, they could be used for other priorities the department may have.
“I don’t want to say ‘yes’ to this and then have to say ‘no’ to something else come budget time,” she said.
Recor encouraged the council, however, to capitalize on the money available now to get the devices on the street before the summer rush.
“If we delay this [until July], we won’t have these on the street during our season,” he said.
Councilman Brent Ashley questioned if the philosophy behind the Taser purchases – investing in the devices to reduce officer injury and costly workman’s compensation claims – was effective.
“Is it revenue neutral, that we’re saving that much on workman’s compensation because of these?” Ashley asked. “I do understand that we have some significant budget challenges coming up, to the tune of $4.5 million, and some significant employee pay raises.”
Recor replied that compensation claims from the OCPD were actually on the rise, although he did not have the numbers in front of him. Other factors –such as work volume – influence this besides Taser availability, he said.
“What I’m suggesting is that you not delay the decision, but I can provide you with that info,” Recor said. “My hunch is that it’s not cost neutral, but these are monies available now and that’s why we’ve advised the department to move forward as they have.”
Ashley continued to object to what he saw as spending the money just because it was a small amount and available.
“If you were to postpone the decision, and look at moving forward with the 22 devices at an additional cost next year,” Recor projected, “given the challenge that’s in front of us for FY14, I would say it’s more likely that the entire program [of Taser purchases] would be delayed.”
“We wouldn’t be able to carve out just a portion for it. What we’re doing is breaking it into bite-size pieces.”
However, on the opposite side of council’s political division, Councilman Doug Cymek immediately jumped on Recor’s suggestion that the Tasers were not cost-neutral.
“I’ve been on the Boardwalk several times when our officers have been assaulted,” Cymek said. “This is a perfect example of something that’s pennywise and a pound foolish. You have one big worker’s compensation claim [and it tips the scales].”
“I’m not disagreeing with you, I’m saying that it’s not something that’s financially quantifiable,” Recor said. Whether or not an allocation was valuable beyond its balance sheet was a policy decision that the council would have to make, he said.
The body voted – with Mayor Rick Meehan, Council President Lloyd Martin, and Councilman Joe Mitrecic absent – to move the decision to next week’s meeting pending more information about the OCPD’s compensation claims.