By Dan Moffett
Manalapan town commissioners are countering a spate of stolen cars with an aggressive plan to enhance security that includes hiring four police officers and expanding the town’s already extensive use of cameras and technology.
“We live here because it’s a unique community,” Mayor Keith Waters said. “It’s unlike any other community in America. I don’t want this to be a police state, but at the same time, I want there to be absolute certainty that when you go to bed at night, everything’s going to be OK.”
Over the last six months, seven residents have reported their cars stolen. All were crimes of opportunity, police say. In each case, the owner left keys in the car.
Police were able to recover five of the vehicles and make four arrests. The suspects came from Broward and Miami-Dade counties and traveled to Manalapan in groups.
“This will not stand,” Waters said. “We’ve been lulled into a sense of complacency where our town has operated over a period of time under the assumption that everyone is as good as we were. And that’s not the case.”
Commissioners unanimously approved spending $417,000 out of the town’s $2.2 million reserve fund to pay for the security upgrades. They include:
• Filling four new police positions by summer to increase the number of sworn officers to 15.
Police Chief Carmen Mattox, who during the Jan. 23 town meeting won praise from commissioners and residents for his performance, said the new hires will allow him to have three officers on patrol at all times — one assigned exclusively to Point Manalapan, one to the ocean side and another for backup.
Also, the increased manpower will enable the department to get more use out of the marine patrol boat the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office donated to the town last year.
• Increasing pay for all officers.
Waters said higher pay would reduce turnover in the department and attract a “higher caliber officer.” He said Manalapan has one of the highest tax bases and lowest tax rates (2.795 mills) in the county and shouldn’t rank near the bottom in the county for police pay.
Starting pay for officers will go from $46,700 to $51,200 and each of the current uniformed officers will receive a $4,500 raise.
• Hiring a private armed security guard to staff the Point Manalapan gatehouse and renovating it to increase floor space.
Commissioners approved adding a stop sign at the gatehouse to force motorists to stop for the cameras. “We can’t prohibit people from going in,” Waters said, “but they’re going to have to stop at the gate.”
• Expanding the use of license plate recognition cameras throughout the town.
Manalapan already makes wide use of LPR cameras and Waters wants more of them. “We know the legal rights, what can and can’t be done,” the mayor said. “We’re going to do everything exactly by the book.”
Commissioner Monica Oberting said the most important benefit of the changes is making police more visible.
“It’s not the response time that’s the issue,” Oberting said. “I think it’s the deterrence.”
Commissioner Clark Appleby said, with the new Publix scheduled to open in June at Plaza del Mar, police will be dealing with “more transients,” so the commission’s plan is well-timed.
Mayor Pro Tem Simone Bonutti said the town needs to get more help from Ocean Ridge and the county in patrolling Manalapan’s southern border and Ocean Inlet Park.
Stewart Satter, a resident on the ocean side, commended the commission’s plan and said he was willing to pay the cost (about $50,000) of equipping the third patrol officer with a new vehicle.
Waters called Satter’s offer “a remarkably generous gesture” — which the town accepted.