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Others closely watch fallout from police mergers

Three years ago, Woodlynne dismantled its police force and arranged for Collingswood to provide patrols, for a fee. Audubon Park had negotiated a similar arrangement with Audubon in 2004.

Three years ago, Woodlynne dismantled its police force and arranged for Collingswood to provide patrols, for a fee. Audubon Park had negotiated a similar arrangement with Audubon in 2004.

The four boroughs were among the first in New Jersey to share police services, a move encouraged by state officials as a way to reduce costs and lower taxes.

But in recent weeks, each pairing went through a tough stretch, resulting in one separation and one patched-together relationship.

"The speeches about shared services talk of it as a magic wand. And it's a poison pill," said Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley.

He said Collingswood wanted to terminate its contract with Woodlynne, but after much rancor and a threatened lawsuit, agreed two weeks ago to continue patrols for one more year.

With more than 30 other communities statewide studying police mergers and policing contracts - including 11 in Burlington County - the troubles in Camden County are being closely scrutinized. Some local officials say the discord gave ammunition to residents who oppose dissolving their police force.

Woodlynne faced the frightening prospect of having no police protection when Collingswood announced in April that it would end the contract in two months. Woodlynne approached other towns, but none expressed interest in providing patrols.

The experience served as a lesson for other officials on the need to work out shared-service contracts with built-in protections. Swedesboro, for example, just signed a contract to have Woolwich Township provide police protection over the next five years, and included a provision that calls for disputes to go to binding arbitration.

Jack Fisher, who heads a state commission that tries to persuade municipalities to share services or merge, says police agreements often bring significant savings and better police coverage, especially in tiny boroughs with limited funds and too few officers.

But the chairman of the Local Unit Alignment Reorganization and Consolidation Commission says shared-service agreements must be crafted with care.

"I think we need to be very mindful of an exit strategy, for the safety and financial well-being" of each community, Fisher said.

At last month's commission meeting, the members briefly discussed what happened in Collingswood, Woodlynne and the Audubons, and agreed that the problems in those places will need to be addressed.

The relationship between Woodlynne and Collingswood began to sour a year ago when Woodlynne decided to handle its own housing and apartment inspections, and hired a relative of Woodlynne's mayor to do the job, said Collingswood's Maley. He said Collingswood used to do the inspections, and saw them as a way to prevent apartments from turning into "a breeding ground for crime."

He says inspections now are lax and police are having trouble controlling escalating problems in Woodlynne. If Collingswood is to continue policing Woodlynne after next year, this will have to change, Maley said.

Woodlynne Mayor Geraldo Fuentes called Maley "a bully" and said Maley only cared about "coming up with more money" for Collingswood. Fuentes said Collingswood charged too much for inspections and said his sister-in-law was doing a fine job overseeing code violations.

As for Woodlynne's future with Collingswood, Fuentes said he would have to see where negotiations go. If it doesn't work out, he said, the Camden County Sheriff's Office might patrol.

Collingswood surrounds Woodlynne, the kind of community that is so small the state would like to see it merge with the larger one.

But officials in Collingswood and Woodlynne are miles apart on some of the issues.

Around the same time the fighting between those two boroughs started, officials in the Audubons began discussing renewal terms as their police contract neared expiration. Rather than pay a higher fee, Audubon Park decided to negotiate a new police agreement with Haddon Township, with which it doesn't share a border.

Audubon Park Mayor Larry Pennock said Audubon wanted too much money, so he approached other towns because he had "to do what was best for the borough."

But Audubon Administrator Dave Taraschi said Pennock didn't negotiate fairly. "They took our number, shopped it around for the best offer, and never came back to us to negotiate," Taraschi said. "There is only a $20,000 difference in our numbers, and that wouldn't have been a dealbreaker for us."

Taraschi said the borough had hired more police and purchased more equipment to patrol the two communities.

"Is that the spirit of shared services?" Taraschi asked. "Have we become cutthroat communities just interested in the bottom line?"

Taraschi said borough officials recently discovered a clause in the contract that says "if cost is the only issue" preventing a renewal, the matter should go to arbitration. He said officials last week informed Audubon Park of this and was still waiting to hear back. The new contract with Haddon Township is set to begin Sept. 1.

When news of all the discord broke, Woolwich and Swedesboro were in the middle of negotiating their own police agreement. The two Gloucester County communities already shared schools, a fire company, a parks and recreation department, and a construction official, and it seemed natural for a shared police force to be next.

But a group of Swedesboro residents who did not want to lose their police force stormed the borough meetings and circulated a petition to stop the plan.

"Collingswood and Woodlynne were used as a prime example of why we shouldn't do this," said Swedesboro Mayor Thomas W. Fromm. He said the Audubon situation was also tossed about at the meetings.

But Fromm said officials were prepared and tackled the concerns head-on. Woolwich and Swedesboro worked out a five-year contract that included binding arbitration and a requirement that each side give one year's notice before separating.

"We put mechanisms in place to make it tougher for either party to back out of the deal," Fromm said, noting that the borough stands to save roughly $5 million from the arrangement.

"We learned from the others' mistakes," said Woolwich Administrator Jane DiBella. "The contract will give us plenty of time to come up with a plan if it doesn't work out."

But DiBella said she doubts there will be any problem. "We're very excited about this," she said.