By Dan Moffett
Despite budget constraints because of long overdue infrastructure repairs, Ocean Ridge commissioners have decided to go forward with a plan to equip the town’s police officers with body cameras at a cost of at least $20,000.
“I think it’s kind of like an insurance policy,” said Commissioner Phil Besler. “In the long run, we’re going to save it all on one case. Because if you’ve got the proof, then that person can’t sue you.”
The vote was 4-1 during an Aug. 5 commission workshop to put the cameras in the 2019-2020 budget, with Mayor Steve Coz voting no. He argued that the cameras would have “unintended consequences” and interfere with community policing, straining relations between residents and officers.
Vice Mayor Don MaGruder gave his support with the stipulation that Police Chief Hal Hutchins educate the public on how the department would use the cameras, in particular when officers would activate them.
“The money was allocated for the body cameras but it’s got an asterisk on it,” Coz said. “We have to know how they turn on and off, and different parameters that the chief is going to present.”
The cameras got a lot easier for commissioners to afford when Briny Breezes rehired Ocean Ridge to do its policing, ending a three-year relationship with Boynton Beach. The contract, effective Oct. 1, will generate $180,000 in revenue annually for Ocean Ridge.
In April, Hutchins told the commission he believed cameras were necessary to help clear “an air of distrust of the police” in the town. Hutchins said his officers “are not feeling well and safe in their job” and that all of them supported using the cameras.
Commissioners Kristine de Haseth and Susan Hurlburt also sided with the chief. Hurlburt said she believed the cameras would be “a positive for the town,” and de Haseth said they would give police “a vote of confidence.”
Even with the Briny contract, the town faces a budget deficit of about $264,000 because of repairs and replacements needed to the stormwater drainage system.
The town’s overall financial health is robust, however, with about $4.8 million available in unassigned reserves, or about 63 percent of the annual operating budget needed to run the town.
After a recent survey of salaries in local municipalities found Ocean Ridge dispatchers were underpaid, commissioners voted to raise the position’s pay level by $5,400.
The commission gave unanimous approval to a tentative tax rate of $5.35 per $1,000 of taxable value, the same as 2018. Because the town’s property values rose about 6 percent over the last year, the same rate represents a higher bill for taxpayers.
The commission could still choose to increase the millage to as high as $5.55 during a Sept. 9 budget hearing.