[Update 5 p.m., Tuesday, March 5]
Ridgefield Chief of Police John Roche said in an interview today that the controversy over the police department's request for two replacement patrol officers trumping the school board's request for two School Resource Officers stems from a misunderstanding between him and town Controller Kevin Redmond and First Selectman Rudy Marconi, and emphasized that there has been "no line drawn in the sand" regarding the request for the two SROs.
In a brief interview with Patch, Roche explained that it is ultimately up to the Police Commission to recommend all budget requests, and that it was the commission that determined that the two replacement officers should take priority over the SROs.
That does not mean, however, that the police department is opposed to the SROs — in fact it is completely supportive of the proposal, Roche said. In addition he said if the commission and the selectmen agree that the SROs should remain in the budget, but the two replacement patrol officers should be cut, he would not unilaterally go against the town's wishes and reallocate the funds for the patrol officers.
Roche and members of the Police Commission will be discussing the matter during the Board of Selectmen budget meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. tonight at town hall.
The Ridgefield Board of Selectmen is grappling with a request from the chief of police to restore two patrol officers whose positions were eliminated in 2009 following a hiring freeze and wave of promotions, as well as a request from the Board of Education to hire two additional School Resource Officers (SROs) in order to beef up security at the elementary and middle schools in the wake of the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook School in Newtown.
During Monday's board meeting, marking the launch of its line-by-line review of the proposed 2013-2014 town budget, First Selectman Rudy Marconi said Chief of Police John Roche told him that if the SROs are funded in this year's budget, but the two patrol officers are not, he will reallocate the funding for the patrol officers, as he feels they are more important.
"According to the chief, and he has discussed this with the [Police] Commission, if we were to approve the SROs, and we were to hire those two people without funding the two requested replacements, that they would not use those people for SRO positions — that the utilization of approved positions or people is the discretion of the commission along with the chief of the department," Marconi said.
Marconi explained that the two patrol officer positions were eliminated in 2009 following a hiring freeze and wave of promotions. "Specifically when Chief Richard Ligi passed (in 2008) and we promoted a new chief, everyone moved up and we did not fill the officer position," he said. In addition one officer retired.
Several board members said they were annoyed by Roche's statement that the police will eliminate the SROs in the event the two replacement officers are not funded. Selectwoman Di Masters said it "wasn't in the spirit of cooperation," while Selectwoman Barbara Manners said "I'm not going to be held hostage by this..."
"I would rather not get into a big beef over this...," Marconi said. "I think it's unfortunate and I'm dismayed that we would be faced with this kind of an issue... I never react well to ultimatums."
Marconi said Roche would be attending the Board of Selectmen meeting on Tuesday to discuss the combined request for the four officers (including the two SROs). In addition Marconi said he would be asking Roche for an official statement in writing outlining his position for the board's edification.
Marconi also said he would be contacting town counsel to find out if the police department does in fact have the legal authority to reallocate funds in its budget without board or town approval, as is the case with the Board of Education.
"It seems to me that when the people of a community vote in a referendum for the allocation of funding — I can tell you that in capital projects, if we decide not to use the money the way the people agree that it would be used, and we want to transfer it, we have to go back before the Town Meeting to get that approved," he said. "I don't know why it would be any different in the [town] operating budget."
Manners asked whether the two SROs could be funded in the recently-established school security budget, which would prevent funding from being reallocated within the police department's budget.
"That's where we could do battle... but do we even want to?" Marconi quipped.
"My feeling is that if the Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance and the people approve funding for a specific use, I don't think any department or agency in the town has the right to say 'we're not going to do it that way, we're going to do it a different way,'" he said. "But that might be a battle for the attorneys to work out — and I can see that coming."
The two replacement patrol officers are currently budgeted at $126,959. Marconi explained that the police department would use senior officers for the two SRO positions, since they have more experience interacting with the public. Funding for the SRO positions is currently divided between the town and school budgets, with $70,291 budgeted under "Town Safety and Security" in the town budget.
The Board of Selectmen will continue its review of the proposed 2013-2014 town budget — which at $129,491,122 represents 2.24% increase, or $2,836,718, over the current budget — during tonight's budget meeting at Town Hall.