South Bethany getting true 24-hour police coverage

By adding a new police officer position, South Bethany could get the true 24-hour police coverage many believe they already have. Residents broke into applause Monday afternoon after the town council narrowly voted to create a new full-time police position.

Despite popular sentiment for increased police coverage, the 4-3 vote was close because some councilmembers didn’t feel they had enough information.

“There has been no increase in staffing since 1993 — in 22 years — despite our changing town,” said Chief Troy Crowson at the Jan. 26 meeting.

“The Town of South Bethany would benefit from an additional fulltime officer slot,” he said. “It coincides with what [previous] Chief Deloach wanted but was reluctant to do because of cost.”

South Bethany currently has five officers, as well as the chief, with one of those officer positions currently vacant. After voting to create the new position, the town council also voted to make offers of employment to two candidates: one certified Delaware officer and one police academy recruit.

With the two new hires, South Bethany would have six road officers and the chief.

“We want to maintain a 24-hour department seamlessly,” Crowson said, noting that there are currently periodic gaps in service. South Bethany calls neighboring towns for assistance at those times. Despite hiring part-timers or paying overtime, the SBPD can be shorthanded when someone calls out sick. An officer dealing with an arrest or paperwork may have to stop coverage of the beach or Route 1 for four hours.

With an additional officer, South Bethany police could have two-man shifts, which provides safety and backup for the officers (which also increases morale, Crowson emphasized). It also ensures supervision for less-experienced officers.

“It’s been like this a long time,” said Councilman Al Rae, “and have we had problems?”

“Yes,” Crowson said. “The big incident with a party that had that politician involved — we didn’t have a response to that. … Bethany came and responded to it for us.”

That would, in fact, have been Crowson’s shift, in June of 2013, but he was in the hospital when those calls came in.

Just this past weekend, South Bethany incurred overtime because of a family emergency that called one officer away and necessitated another coming back in, on top of a full work week.

Officers will also spend more time in training and workshops this year.

Vacation time has been rejected “a lot, as a result of someone already being off,” Crowson said. That reduces morale.

With two people per shift, the Town’s all-terrain vehicle could patrol more along the upcoming Assawoman Canal Trail or the beach, reducing lifeguards’ responsibility for policing, because someone would still be on the road with a regular car.

“I would feel a lot better if we had something … that shows the past five years, that was fully loaded with these events and costs, so we could use that to look to the future,” Rae said.

Crowson had an eight-year projection for costs with regularly scheduled promotions, but he said he hesitated to distribute it during a public session because employee names were attached.

Debating the price tag

The SBPD is already saving money, since its two highest-paid officers retired in 2014, their salaries together coming to $155,945. In contrast, a promotion and two recent hires (including the additional patrolman) would cost the Town $89,280.

Adding an academy recruit to the staff would cost $31,686, minus the $5,989 in projected part-time and overtime pay if the position weren’t added. Crowson could also apply a $10,000 Sussex County grant to the hire.

Even with an additional officer, Crowson estimated that the $382,602 Public Safety expense budget will plummet by almost $40,000 next year and not return to $380,539 for three years.

“We’re providing services at a 1993 staffing level. This is not going to go away for us. We’re going to get busy,” Crowson said.

Rae and fellow Councilman Tim Saxton said they still wanted more details and investigation.

“I’m not saying I’m not for it. … I just feel like we’re rushing into this a little bit,” said Rae, expressing concern about future tax increases. “I would like the budget committee, with their expertise, to look at it. … It seems to me this is the kind of thing is what the budget committee is for.”

“No disrespect anywhere,” Saxton said. “There is a lot of financial information that’s not included,” he said, referencing employee benefits and training. “I don’t want the public misled that it’s just additional salary that is contributing to the cost of your department.”

“I’m not saying I’m against this. I’m saying I haven’t seen this,” Saxton added.

Crowson admitted that he is no accountant but emphasized that he had been asked to investigate how South Bethany could provide “better and more efficient police service.”

Councilwoman Sue Callaway said she had thought that South Bethany had 24-hour coverage, and she deferred to Crowson’s assessment.

“When you were hired … you were charged with many objectives, which you have taken a very good look at. One of the things was to look at the department and tell how we can do better,” she said. “I think, with 27 years of experience on the department, you know what’s best for South Bethany.”

“I think Troy has shown us how we can get a lot closer to 24-hour coverage,” said Councilman George Junkin. “We lost some high-paid people. We can add one additional lower-paid person and bring it up to six working people … and still not exceed what we spent in 2014.”

In the future, South Bethany could get the additional revenue it needs to continue with six police officers. It may raise taxes, cut the budget or choose not to refill a future vacancy.

The issue of hiring a sixth officer arose when the police hiring committee found an excellent candidate who still needed to attend the academy. They had to bypass her for an officer with more experience. But the time seemed ripe to investigate an additional position that she could fill, said Mayor Pat Voveris.

The public approves

“This reminds me of a meeting I attended many years ago, when this town was formed,” said resident Bryant Hopkins. The public safety committee was debating whether to use a federal grant to hire an amateur officer.

“The guy that they were talking about was Joe Deloach,” who recently retired as police chief after 35 years of service to the Town. “If you want 24/7, you’re going to pay for it.”

“What is the price of safety? I’ve only been here 10 years, and I’ve seen this town boom!” said resident Jerry Masiello. “Better to look at a future contingency than look back and say, ‘Maybe if we had hired someone, that guy wouldn’t have been killed.’”

“People are coming into South Bethany. They want more. Bigger houses, more police protection,” said resident Dick Oliver. “I want better police protection.”

About 500 people reside in South Bethany in the winter. The town has 1,200 homes.

Carol Stevenson said the South Bethany Property Owners Association “would be surprised” to learn that they don’t already have 24-hour coverage.

“I’m for it, regardless; but I’d like to know how it impacts the budget,” said resident Jack Whitney.

At least four residents said they agreed with creating a new position, citing everything from the growth trends of Sussex County to their trust in Crowson’s opinion.

The final vote

The council eventually voted to create the new police position. Callaway, Junkin, Saxton and Mayor Pat Voveris voted in favor. Rae and Councilmen Tony Caputo and Jim Gross voted against the measure. The opponents all said they wanted more analysis of the numbers.

“I feel like this has been rushed,” said Rae, asking for more in-depth discussion. “What are our objectives for the police department? What are we trying to do other than add another person to patrol Route 1?”

“Keep us safe!” one resident called out.

Saxton’s vote was a reluctant yes.

“I think the argument for 24-hour coverage is there,” he said, adding that he wished it had been studied in the budgetary process. “I’m afraid I’m missing things. I don’t feel my questions were fully answered. From a financial perspective, can we do it? Probably. I don’t believe those numbers [presented] will hold.”

After 30 years in law enforcement, in small towns and abroad, resident Masiello said he was happy with the vote but that he felt council members didn’t fully understand the grave importance of having backup officers.

“I’ve been through too many life-threatening situations to talk money,” he said after the meeting. “It’s police officers lives. It’s residents’ lives, renters’ lives. How can you put a price on that?”

The council on Jan. 26 also voted to specifically hire the two officers recommended by Crowson. The candidates were given conditional offers of employment, based on passing their final physicals and psychological evaluations.

“One is a sworn Delaware-certified officer from another agency,” said Cpl. Patrick Wiley. “The other is a new recruit we’ll put through academy,” a six-month training program that begins in March.