By Margie Plunkett
The Ocean Ridge Police Department will continue on the beat, after commissioners defeated a proposal to provide law enforcement services through the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
The decision — made in a 4-1 vote — met with applause from residents at the Nov. 5 meeting, who have followed the issue for months since it was proposed after police officers moved to unionize. Commission opted to investigate whether Sheriff’s Office services were more economically viable than the existing police department.
The benefits of a local police force whose focus is the coastal communities of Ocean Ridge and Briny Breezes won hands down, with the dissenting commissioner noting that her vote reflected at least in part an inadequate analysis of the issue.
The PBSO doesn’t “know the town — and that’s one of the key issues,” said Mayor Geoffrey Pugh. “I was here when we disbanded the fire department. When those fire trucks left here, a piece of Ocean Ridge left,” he said, explaining he doesn’t want to lose Ocean Ridge’s personality.
“I don’t want to be everyone else. I want my police department there,” he said, adding the town should raise the tax rate if that’s what it takes to keep the department.
Commissioner Zoanne Hennigan, who was the lone vote for contracting with PBSO, wants a more comprehensive analysis and potential changes in the police department to head off unsustainable future costs.
While Hennigan said she’s interested in the town’s safety, she also was considering its future budget.
“I’m not even saying going to PBSO is the best thing to do. I have to say we have to open up our eyes in the future. We have to do some better long-range planning. The cost of our police department is unsustainable in the long run.”
Hennigan, like some residents during public comment, said the town needs to look at alternatives that will save money, potentially including sharing police and dispatch services with other neighboring towns. “We need to start taking some baby steps.”
The public largely voiced support for keeping the Ocean Ridge Police Department.
“I think we should just put this to rest. It’s very hard on the police department,” said former Commissioner Betty Bingham.
The uncertainty created while waiting for a decision is demoralizing to officers and may cause the police department to lose people who look for positions elsewhere, she said.
Others at the public hearing weren’t sure why the issue was still on the table.
“I don’t quite understand why we’re back to this subject again,” said Stella Kolb. “I thought this was settled. You heard the will of the people. Do you need a petition signed? What do we have to do to stop this nonsense?”
The public had turned out in force in the spring, when the PBSO presented its $1.2 million per year proposal to town officials, and were vocal in their opposition to contracting law enforcement to the Sheriff’s Office. The analysis of the proposals supplied to commissioners put the cost for Ocean Ridge’s police service at $2 million.
“My mother told me long ago, ‘Don’t drop a diamond and pick up a rock,’ ” said Tim Atteberry. “These guys who work with us are the best.”