By Dan Moffett
Manalapan began the year with ambitious plans to expand its Police Department by 50 percent. Those plans have stalled lately over problems recruiting and keeping qualified officers, despite a hefty across-the-board increase in pay.
Police Chief Carmen Mattox says he has eight full-time uniformed officers now and has made no progress expanding the department to 12 as the Town Commission unanimously approved earlier this year.
“We’re just really having a tough time with hiring and keeping,” said Town Manager Linda Stumpf. “Right now we’re struggling against the Sheriff’s Office and the School Board. They’re both hiring like crazy.”
Stumpf said that two officers who left Manalapan recently to work elsewhere in the county said during exit interviews that the town’s salary increase was important to them, but their main reason for leaving was pension benefits. Manalapan offers a 401(k) plan but does not offer defined benefits compensation, such as that of the Florida Retirement System, that other agencies provide.
“We can’t compete in today’s marketplace,” Stumpf said.
Mayor Keith Waters asked Stumpf and Mattox during a budget workshop on June 25 to find out how much it would cost the town to offer a defined benefits plan. Waters said it makes no sense to go ahead with plans to improve the town’s network of security cameras and overhaul the police dispatch center without first hiring qualified officers.
“If we invest in all this technology and we don’t have the people, we have nothing,” Waters said. “We have to invest in people first.”
After a string of car thefts late last year, commissioners approve in January a plan to spend $417,000 from reserve funds to expand the department. The plan called for raising police starting salaries from $46,700 to $51,200 and giving each officer currently in the department a $4,500 raise.
Mattox said he needs more officers to satisfy the commission’s goal of having three patrol cars on duty around the clock. Stumpf said that improving police pensions likely will force the town to increase its millage rate.
Manalapan is well-positioned, however, for a modest tax hike. The town has one of the lowest tax rates ($2.795 per $1,000 of taxable property value) and highest per capita tax bases in the county — and property values have risen roughly 10 percent in the past year, Stumpf said.
Besides the police expansion, another significant expenditure in the 2018-19 budget is a renovation of the Town Hall chambers. Commissioners are waiting for cost estimates on that project.