Carroll County residents loudly told their legislative delegation yesterday that they do not want to rush the creation of a county police department and they want the matter to go to referendum.
Many criticized the county commissioners' decision in October to create a county police force and to give themselves the power to appoint its chief.
"The commissioners are really wrong on this point, and I ask that they change their minds," said Harold Forney, a county resident who was among about 200 people gathered for a 2 1/2 -hour hearing on the topic. "This centralizes law enforcement under the commissioners. What the county commissioners desire to do is take away that watchdog."
The decision to create the county force came after years of discussion about abolishing the resident trooper program, which has been based at the state police barracks in Westminster.
The resident troopers have been the county's primary law enforcement for more than 30 years. But change has become necessary as Carroll County's population has swelled to about 170,000.
Even before the public hearing began, state Sen. Larry E. Haines won applause for voicing concerns about the timing of creating a police department.
"Have the commissioners even discussed that maybe this is an issue to go to public referendum?" he asked. "I don't see the need to rush this thing going through for July 1. I think we're moving too fast."
The delegation is expected to make a decision this week on this and other topics discussed at yesterday's hearing.
A 10 a.m. public hearing planned for Jan. 31 may be rescheduled to a time that is more convenient for working residents, following a suggestion made yesterday, a county official said.
"The Maryland State Police are no longer the best bang for the buck for Carroll County," said Steven D. Powell, the county chief of staff. "This has been a long debate. This has not been a quick issue."
There is agreement that the resident trooper program is not a long-term solution for growing Carroll County, he said.
Eliminating the trooper program would save $1 million annually, according to county officials. The sheriff's department would remain in place.
"There is no appreciable difference between the cost to run a future unified sheriff's department and the cost to operate a county police department," Powell said.
Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning said he has urged county commissioners for 21 years to create a law enforcement master plan, which has not been done. Suddenly there is a sense of urgency to get somewhere without any plan in place, he said.
For several years, he has pushed for his department to assume primary responsibility for law enforcement in the county.
"There is no sound reason that the county is going forward at this speedy and reckless pace to dismantle the sheriff's department," Tregoning said.
"Here they want to change the entire face of law enforcement, and they have not had one public meeting. I find that disgraceful," he said.
Tregoning urged a longer transition period that allows for phasing in the changes rather than compressing them into the remaining months before July.
Carroll County Sheriff's Lt. John H. Shippee said a combined communication system would help the various law enforcement agencies talk to each other .
Five of the county's eight municipalities - Westminster, Taneytown, Hampstead, Manchester and Sykesville - have their own police departments.
Among Shippee's concerns about the proposed county police department are the cost to taxpayers, the fact that the commissioners would get to appoint the head law enforcement officer and the impact on the sheriff's department, he said in a later interview.
"I absolutely oppose the county police department," he said.
Even if he and other members of the sheriff's department were hired for the new police force - as they have been told they would be - they would be guaranteed their same salaries but not necessarily their rank or duty assignment, he said.
Some residents say they simply want to feel part of the decision process when it comes to their safety.
"As a taxpayer, I'm concerned about how this is going to raise our taxes," Westminster resident Cheryl Powers said. "Since we're one of the highest counties as far as taxes and one of the lowest as far as crime rate, I'm wondering why we're talking about going to this new county force. I urge it to go to referendum, just because I think the people need a say in this."