OCEAN CITY — Resort officials this week approved the recruiting and hiring of 10 new full-time police officers for the Ocean City Police Department, acknowledging the challenge will likely be how to pay for them.
During Tuesday’s work session, Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) Chief Ross Buzzuro and OCPD Captain Mike Colbert came before the Mayor and Council seeking approval to hire 10 new full-time sworn officers. Buzzuro said the number of full-time officers has been stagnant for as long as he has been chief in 2013, while the town’s offseason special events have multiplied and in-season crowds have increased.
Buzzuro also said with police departments all over the country under increased scrutiny, the challenges in recruiting summer seasonal officers has increased in kind. His recommendation was to beef up the full-time year-round police force and scale back somewhat on the seasonal officer program.
“We’re seeing increased difficulty with the seasonal officer program,” he said. “We’ve seen a decline in applications in recent years, especially with the challenges facing police departments all over the country.”
As a result, Buzzuro said the department would like to add more full-time police officers over time and reduce the reliance on the seasonal officer program. He said ideally, the department would like to go from 107 full-time sworn officers to 140 over the period of a couple of years, for a total of 33, but that he was seeking 10 in the first year.
Colbert explained the reasoning for the additional full-time officers’ request was related to societal ways in which law enforcement is viewed and held accountable, along with a spike in the number of special events and challenges related to recruiting and hiring seasonal officers.
“There are a number of reasons we’re asking for additional officers,” he said. “Part of it is, there has been an incredible movement in recent years, which has only accelerated in recent months, for increased training and accountability for police officers demanded by their communities. Law enforcement has become much more complex. We also have increased demand for service in the offseason with the number of special events having increased significantly.”
Buzzuro said the number of sworn full-time officers has remained stagnant since he was hired as chief eight years ago.
“To put things in perspective, we had more police officers seven years ago then we have now,” he said. “We have had virtually the same number of full-time officers for the last 15 years. We have 50% more special events and we’re in a position where we need to fortify ourselves.”
The Mayor and Council were generally supportive of the request. Councilman Tony DeLuca said he wasn’t sure about moving away too far from the seasonal officer program. He said the seasonal officers along with a fleet of public safety aides (PSAs) that handle low-level enforcement provide an invaluable service to the sworn full-time complement of officers.
“It’s a yes from me, but…,” he said. “The ‘but’ is I thought we were looking at a plan to attack that top end of the seasonal officer program and the PSAs and pay them more and maybe a title change to make the positions more attractive.”
Colbert agreed the PSAs were invaluable during the summer, but they lacked the training of the full-time officers and even the seasonal officers needed in these changing times.
“We see a need to go forward with the PSAs,” he said. “Their training is two weeks and the seasonal officer training is five weeks. The problem is they don’t have arrest powers or use of force training or those kinds of things.”
Buzzuro agreed the PSAs were needed, along with the seasonal officer corps to some degree, but the pressing issue was the need for more full-time officers.
“In terms of public safety, they’re a godsend,” he said. “As we try to move forward, we’re not moving in the right direction. This is a daunting task, not just in Ocean City but all over the country.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said he fully supported the request for 10 more full-time officers.
“The chief is now in his eighth year and he’s working with the same number of officers,” he said. “We can’t afford not to address this. It’s extremely important to our residents and vitally important to our tourism industry. I know there is a cost, but I think it’s evident we need to make this investment.”
There is an obvious cost associated with adding 10 new full-time police officers. The estimated primary cost for each new officer is around $86,000 in salary and benefits and training, for an estimated total of $860,000. The projection does not include the cost of outfitting the new officers with uniforms and equipment, and potentially vehicles, for example. Council President Lloyd Martin said those costs could be figured out, but time was of the essence to start the process.
“We went from 95 to 105 years ago, and it took a long time to get to that 105,” he said. “We need to plan now for adding these new officers. Budget time is not until March and we’ll figure out a way to pay for it, but we need to get people into the academy.”
Councilman Dennis Dare said the cost of not hiring the new officers could be greater in the long run.
“The cost is of some concern, but the cost of not having them could be even greater,” he said. “They are getting their leave cancelled. They can’t go to their college roommate’s wedding on a weekend because of the personnel shortage. It becomes a quality of life issue.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight said bolstering the full-time police force was a good investment considering some the perception changes of Ocean City after a particularly troublesome summer.
“It would cost us more money not to do it,” she said. “We’re already getting calls and emails that Ocean City is not the same as it used to be.”
Councilman John Gehrig went back to the funding issue.
“Keeping the public safe is a top priority, but I would like to see the cost and how we’re going to pay for it,” he said. “We can cut somewhere else, we could raise taxes or we can make money. I’d prefer to make money. We’re going to need to continue the economic development discussion.”
City Manager Doug Miller was blunt in his assessment.
“It’s not a simple answer,” he said. “You would probably have to raise taxes.”
Gehrig agreed a potential property tax increase was possible unless city officials and staff can find a creative way to pay for the expanded police force.
“The public needs to understand,” he said. “If we do this, there will probably be some level of tax increase. I just want to be honest. The last thing we want to do is raise taxes, but we have to look at everything. Saying we want it is the easy part. The best solution is economic development, but we’ve been painfully slow with that. We have to get creative.”
However, DeLuca said raising taxes would be a measure of last resort and he had already formulated some options to avoid that.
“I look forward to having the discussion on how to pay for this,” he said. “I have four plans already for how to pay for this and none of them include raising taxes.”
The council voted unanimously to approve the requested 10 additional OCPD officers.