By Abby Wargo
The future is murky for the Chestertown Police Department.
The fate of the CPD will remain up in the air until February.
On Monday, Oct. 7, Chestertown’s Town Hall was standing-room only for the town council’s regularly scheduled meeting at 7:30 p.m. The biggest issue on the agenda was the discussion of several options to maintain or eliminate the local police force. Ultimately, the mayor and council agreed in a 4-1 vote to postpone a final decision through the month of February. Councilman Marty Stetson, a retired police officer, dissented in favor of more immediate action.
Two representatives from Washington College, Director of the Department of Public Safety Brandon McFayden and Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Sarah Feyerherm, attended the meeting.
Chestertown is one of two towns in Kent County with its own police department, and it is by far the largest: Rock Hall only has three officers compared to Chestertown’s 14.
Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino began the discussion by showing a slideshow displaying the town’s budget, the current tax rate, and the lack of county tax rebates.
For the past four years, the town has been operating on a tight budget, with no room for staff raises or capital improvements like repaving roads, according to Cerino. He cited rising expenses and flat revenues as a reason for this.
The biggest rise in expenses, he said, comes from the police department.
The cost of public safety has risen by 33% — or $462,000 — since 2009. In the same 10-year span, the town’s revenue has only increased by 4%, according to Cerino.
“This is the fundamental problem: public safety is our biggest expense,” he said.
Cerino also shared Facebook comments of residents’ complaints and misconceptions about the reason for the possible elimination: many cited the consideration as proof that Cerino would rather fund the newly-completed Chestertown Marina than sustain the police department.
“This isn’t a choice between the marina and CPD,” he said at Monday’s meeting. “This has nothing to do with the marina.”
Additionally, Chestertown Police Chief Adrian Baker unexpectedly resigned at the end of August to take a new job as superintendent of the Maryland Natural Resources Police. Lt. John Dolgos has been the acting chief since Baker’s departure.
The council discussed four options for the future of the CPD. The first is to keep the status quo: hire a new chief, keep all 14 officers, and have the town bear the cost.
Cerino said there would likely be no other funding for the next two years if the council selects that option.
The second option is to maintain the CPD by figuring out cost-saving measures. This could include reducing the force, leasing vehicles instead of buying them outright, or cutting overtime hours.
The third is a “hybrid” option which involves merging CPD’s resources with those of the Kent County Sheriff’s Office. If this is chosen, the county will have to sign a contract with the town to ensure that the Sheriff’s Office would provide similar coverage of the Chestertown area.
“We will still police the town,” Cerino said.
The final, “nuclear” option is to close the CPD and shift policing responsibilities to the county, with the county bearing the full cost.
“We don’t want to have to do this, but we have to consider it,” he said.
In the short term, Cerino proposed that the acting CPD chief Lt. John Dolgos would remain in the post until February and that the department would operate business as usual until March, when the new council members begin their tenure. Then, the council — with its new elects — will revisit the issue and make a final decision.
Councilman David Foster agreed with Cerino that something has to be done in order to balance the budget.
“We’re deferring maintenance. The roads are old and the water and sewer pipes under those roads are older still. We have got to build up a reserve, because inevitably we’re going to have to do major repairs. Right now, we’re not prepared,” he said.
“I don’t know what the solution is — I don’t think any of us know what the solution is — but I think that all of us agree that something’s going to have to change. We can’t continue going with expenses rising and revenues flat,” Foster said.
Councilwoman Linda Kuiper stressed that the police officers and their families should be considered while decisions are being made. She said a decision should come sooner rather than later.
An advocate for Chestertown’s public safety, Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver said the council needs to look at where the town can generate more revenue. He emphasized the importance of efficient local policing.
“We need to have our own chief, our full staff of police officers, because we have issues going on in this town that aren’t related to what’s going on in the county,” he said.
Stetson said he was in favor of the Sheriff’s Office taking over policing Chestertown because it is more professional.
“The quality of policing out of Chestertown has not been what it should be for the last 20 years,” Stetson, an ex-Chestertown police chief, said. “The people of Chestertown, if they have a complaint, they don’t care what color the uniform is, they just want a cop in person to show up.”
Ultimately, the council voted to defer the final judgment through the month of February, with all but Stetson assenting.
Until then, the town is forming a task force to make cost-saving recommendations for the police department and explore merging options with the Sheriff’s Office.
“The budget is not getting better unless there’s a fundamental change,” Cerino said.