WEST MILFORD Township police will continue to provide traffic assistance at four churches throughout the town, free of charge. That unanimous decision came Wednesday night after some discussion on whether it's fair and whether the service should be paid for by the churches themselves.
In March, the mayor and township council discussed the free service that is provided to Our Lady Queen of Peace, St. Joseph and West Milford Presbyterian, and which is paid for by Living Word Church in Hewitt. All felt it wasn't fair to charge one church and not the others, but the discussion centered around whether the service should be provided to any of the churches free of charge. Police Chief Gene Chiosie has said the need is there for the service. It's up to the council to decide who should pay for it.
Township Administrator Nancy Gage contacted the three churches currently getting the services for free. Each has said they would not pay for the service if the township discontinued it for no cost. But that doesn't mean they don't consider it necessary.
Rev. Janet MacGregor-Williams, pastor of the Presbyterian Church, told the Messenger in March that the police service has been provided to her church long before she came here a dozen years ago. The officer is on duty for about two hours, from 9:40 to 11:30 a.m. each Sunday at her church, which averages about 130 people at its service and about 60 cars.The traffic assistance at her church allows cars exiting the parking lot onto Union Valley Road after the service to turn left with the officer on duty. Without the traffic assistance, cars may only turn right. She said she hopes they continue to provide the service.
A matter of public safety Some members of the council brought up the separation of church and state and asked if it was legal to provide the service.
Councilman Lou Signorino said he wanted to keep the service and discuss options on how to do it.
"In the end, it's not just for the churches," said Signorino. "It's for the traffic in town. It's about public safety."
Township attorney Fred Semrau said it is more a matter of public safety than anything else.
"Legally, it isn't about churches," said Semrau.
Instead, he said it's about traffic control for any public event. Since there is nothing in the township code about assessing events for public safety issues and possible charges for services, Semrau suggested the council look into it.
"If an activity requires the need for police, they can be assessed for the services," Semrau said. If someone says no, we're not going to pay it, he said the township has no recourse right now.
Being fair Living Word Church is currently paying for the services provided by the special police officers each Sunday. It comes to $135 every week. However, that was a condition of their approval before the Planning Board back in 2007 when the church was established, according to Gage. They were to pay for the police services. The council overrode that condition and now, like the other three churches that are on busy township streets, Living Word Church will have its traffic control provided by the township free of charge.
Councilwoman CarlLa Horton agreed to continue providing the service to all four churches but said she wants to look at it again for next year's budget. She said she wasn't making "a long-term commitment" to this; she would only commit for this year.