Consolidating the Oak Bluffs and Tisbury police departments is economically viable, would save some money, and would improve supervision and increase operational efficiency in the two towns. Those are among the findings of a new study released this month by the MMA Consulting Group.
Titled the “Oak Bluffs and Tisbury, Massachusetts Public Safety Services Study,” and dated March 2011, the report’s authors wrote, “It is our primary recommendation that the towns of Oak Bluffs and Tisbury explore the viability of consolidating their police departments into one agency.”
The study specifically recommends that Oak Bluffs and Tisbury enter into an inter-municipal agreement to consolidate the departments; that the department be governed by a five or seven-member Police Department Oversight Committee; that the department be composed of one chief, one lieutenant, four or five police sergeants and 16 police officers; and it operate primarily from the Oak Bluffs station.
The report notes, “The officials of each town appear to have been satisfied with services, but suggest that there may be opportunities to share resources. There is also a belief that the policing philosophies may be somewhat different in the two towns.”
The report provides no explanation of what those philosophies are or how they may differ.
The 37-page study (available at mvtimes.com) has yet to be presented in a public forum but was provided to police officials, police union representatives and selectmen in both towns. Martha’s Vineyard Commission executive director Mark London commissioned the study that was funded through a grant.
John Bugbee, Tisbury town administrator, said there is currently no specific plan to present the report. He said he expects to discuss the topic with selectmen and schedule a public presentation with the author of the report at a later date.
Michael Dutton, Oak Bluffs town administrator, said the focus of town officials is the upcoming annual town meeting. Mr. Dutton said he does not expect selectmen to take any immediate action on the report, in part because the state Department of Revenue is scheduled to conduct a financial review of Oak Bluffs and Tisbury, at the request of the towns, that will provide town officials with further information and recommendations on a wide range of town services. Once that is complete, a joint committee for the two towns is expected to review both reports Mr. Dutton said.
Police in both towns have expressed little appetite for any merger. Police representatives greeted the report’s conclusions with skepticism.
“In my review of the study, I fail to find any significant tangible benefits of the proposed merger to either town or their respective police departments,” Tisbury Sergeant Bob Fiske, wrote in response to an email from The Times seeking comment. “MMA Consulting itself states in its own findings that, ‘The consolidation of the police departments would provide the same level of service as currently provided.'”
Sergeant Fiske, a veteran officer who has previously served on union negotiating teams, said both departments have routinely demonstrated that they have the ability to work independently and cooperatively to effectively meet the policing needs and expectations of residents and visitors to their respective communities.
“I question whether Tisbury would lose a measurable level of local control in policing matters that are important to the residents of Tisbury as a result of a consolidation of the police departments,” he said.
In a faxed, one-page statement to The Times, Jeff Trudel, president of the Oak Bluffs Police Officers Association, said the association has reviewed the study “and considers it flawed.”
Mr. Trudel said “the devil is in the details” and none of the detail costs of a merger are adressed. He added, “It fails to adequately describe the civilian oversight of the department, management, hiring standards, promotion criteria, staffing levels, services provided, etc.”
Mr. Trudel also referenced the potential liability stemming from lawsuits and grievances filed against the Tisbury department. “Oak Bluffs taxpayers could become liable for a percentage of what was formerly a Tisbury issue,” he said. “Given the state of Oak Bluffs finances, assuming liability for another party is not a prudent course of action.”
Mr. Trudel said officers were not contacted or consulted about the report or their concerns, “which leads us to conclude that the report is biased and outcome driven. As written, there is no benefit to Oak Bluffs.”
The notion of consolidating Island police services on an inter-municipal or regional basis has been a familiar topic of Island conversation, but few elected leaders have shown a willingness to step into the tangle of local interests that any discussion of regionalization provokes.
Tisbury and Oak Bluffs have flirted with the idea for some time. In May 2000, Edmond Coogan, a Tisbury selectman until his death in 2001 who had once been a selectman in Oak Bluffs, said that combining the Tisbury and Oak Bluffs police departments would benefit both towns in terms of finances and resources.
Mr. Coogan was a driving force behind the idea, and although discussions between the selectmen took place, nothing resulted.
In May 2006, following the end of Ted Saulnier’s tenure as Tisbury police chief, Tisbury and Oak Bluffs selectmen held joint meetings to discuss the possibility of sharing a police chief. Oak Bluffs Police chief Erik Blake expressed his willingness to be considered for the job. A few weeks later, however, he withdrew his name as a possible candidate, and the Oak Bluffs selectmen took the shared chief idea off the table.
Tisbury hired John Cashin. In May 2009, following a stormy relationship with members of his own department and selectmen, Mr. Cashin left the job.
That same month Oak Bluffs selectmen asked Tisbury selectmen whether they might be interested in creating a regional police force for the two towns. The impetus for the request was Tisbury’s decision to hire security consultant and West Tisbury resident Robert Wasserman to advise selectmen going forward.
Tisbury selectmen, faced with hiring a new police chief, focused only on sharing a regional police chief. Last May, in a two-part report on the Tisbury Police department and Chief Dan Hanavan, then interim police chief, Mr. Wasserman’s Strategic Policy Partnership provided guidance on a possible merger of the two departments.
Mr. Wasserman’s report (available at mvtimes.com) identified the difficulties associated with arranging an Island-wide, or even a more limited, police organization, but he said, “It is clear that merger of the departments Island-wide makes economic sense.”
Mr. Wasserman said that in the long term, savings may be realized from establishing a single headquarters, single-shift supervisors, better use of personnel, thus reducing overtime and reducing the number of vehicles.
The latest report to tackle the question of consolidating police services comes to similar conclusions.
The report is broken into seven chapters. These include an analysis of the service demands in the respective police departments, possible organizational structures and governance for a combined department, and cost models.
“The purpose of the study was to explore the possibility of greater inter-municipal collaboration between the Oak Bluffs Police Department and the Tisbury Police Department, ranging from sharing certain services to a complete consolidation of the two police departments,” the study said.
The report includes a detailed analysis of both departments. Findings include: the towns collectively budgeted approximately $3,000,000 for police services each year for the last three years; the departments employ 29 full-time, sworn law enforcement personnel and three administrative/office support personnel. In addition, Oak Bluffs employs five special officers and Tisbury employs two special officers; and Oak Bluffs had a three-year average of 4,937 calls for service and Tisbury 4,599.
The number of incidents, identified as events in which police action was required, for example assault and battery, larceny, and operating under the influence (OUI) varied by town and month. There has been a drop in the last three years.
The study showed that Oak Bluffs recorded 1,028 incidents in 2008, 770 in 2009 and 584 in 2010 for a three-year average of 2,382. On average, the highest number of incidents occurred in July (372) and August (310). The lowest number was in December (99).
In Tisbury the number was 521 in 2008, 474 in 2009, and 368 in 2010 for a three-year average of 1,363. On average, the highest number of incidents occurred in July (184) and August (172). The lowest number was January (68).
In Oak Bluffs in 2010, larceny followed by disorderly conduct and OUI were the top three categories of incidents. In Tisbury it was larceny, assault and battery, and OUI.
Under the heading, Personnel Cost Savings, the report states that the merger of the two police departments “would result in savings of approximately $362,000, including salary and benefit costs (five sergeants) and $479,200 (four sergeants). In addition, there are indirect cost savings (overhead costs, such as one less facility). The indirect employee cost for sworn police personnel is estimated to be 40 percent of the total salary of each employee.”
The report adds, “It is important to note that not all police department costs are included in the department budget …
“The vehicle fleet could be reduced by two sedans and one or two other vehicles. Assuming that the departments consolidate, their facilities should be integrated. The Tisbury police station has limited parking and most police activity occurs on the second floor. Consolidation would enable the towns to centralize many functions, especially patrol functions, at the Oak Bluffs police station. The Tisbury facility could be used for support functions. The garage area at the Tisbury police station could be used for storage of specialty equipment, such as bicycles.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 31, 2011
An earlier version incorrectly linked the MMA Consulting Group, Inc. to the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a nonprofit, nonpartisan association. The two are not affiliated.