MADISON — The Madison Police Department will soon consolidate with the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office after residents approved money for such a plan at Town Meeting Monday night.

The decision followed more than 45 minutes of heated debate and two written ballot votes on the issue at the Madison Area Junior High School.

“We want to thank everyone for voting and for sharing their opinions,” said Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Al Veneziano after the meeting. “I think hearing what everyone had to say was certainly helpful. We are putting our trust in the sheriff now and hopefully moving forward in a positive direction.”

After an initial motion to approve a higher budget in support of the Madison Police Department, a lower $851,894 public safety budget was approved by a vote of 103-73.

The higher $940,739 public safety budget proposed by the Advisory Board was rejected in an initial vote of 101-86. That budget would have supported a full-time police chief and maintained a Madison Police Department.

Instead, the vote Monday means that a plan to transition the Madison department into a division of the sheriff’s office will go into effect July 1.

The police item was one of the first articles in a 24-item warrant at the annual Town Meeting, where residents approved a total $2,410,107 municipal budget.

There is no referendum on the police issue, but rather it was included in an overall public safety budget with two figures being presented, one from the board of selectmen and one from the town advisory board.

Advisory Board Chairman Ronald Moody said his board decided to present a different number in order to offer residents a choice. The issue drew about 45 minutes of debate with residents raising questions related to local control, the possible retirement of Police Chief Barry Moores and whether the town will be able to go back to a local police department if the agreement with the sheriff’s office does not work out. Interim Town Manager Tim Curtis said it would be possible for the town to re-institute a Madison Police Department if the plan with the sheriff’s office does not work out. The town has already taken an inventory of police department property should that occur, he said.

One resident, Brett Hagopian, questioned the board saying he wanted their word that the higher number would be used to keep the police department as is.

“Will you leave the police department alone?” he asked. “If everyone votes for the higher police budget, will you leave it alone? I want an individual answer from everyone on the board.”

Vice Chairman of the Board of Selectman Jack Ducharme said that the budget proposed by the advisory board would not be enough to support five full-time officers, a chief and a full-time secretary — the current make-up of the department. “It’s not possible to do that,” he said. “I can’t give you a ‘Yes, we’re not going to make any changes,’ or a no because that budget may force us to make changes.”

Selectman Paul Fortin also encouraged the audience to reconsider the lower budget, saying that it would provide cost savings not just this year, but down the road when the town is in need of money for capital projects and road repairs. Those things are not included in the overall $2.4 million budget approved Monday.

“The board worked very hard to keep the mil rate under 20,” Fortin said. “We had to look at a number of different options across all departments. This is going to come back to us when we need to spend money, and there may be another contingent of people here who are unhappy over their rising tax bill rather than the loss of a police chief.”

There are no plans to change the number of full-time officers or their hours, according to Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster, but the plan will eliminate the role of a full-time police chief in Madison.

At the time the plan was announced in April, the board said in a press release that it would coincide with Moores’ “impending retirement.”

On Monday Moores would not give a definitive answer surrounding his retirement and said only that he would “stay long enough either way to get through.”

The $2.4 million budget represents a loss of $827,457 in spending from last year, or about 25 percent. It does not include money for capital projects like road repairs or construction. Including the $88,845 reduction in the police budget, there is an average 11 percent decrease in department budgets, according to Curtis.

Other reductions include the loss of two part-time positions in the town office for assessing. Eliminating those positions — a decision that Curtis said went along with a town decision to eliminate its Board of Assessors — will yield a net savings of $15,000 after the town contracts an outside assessor.

The budget approved Monday night is the first since the town saw a loss of about $150 million in valuation at Madison Paper Industries, resulting in a more than 17 percent loss in tax revenue.

Elections will be held today from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the town office. Incumbent Selectman Paul Fortin faces newcomers Brandon Hagopian and Raymond Sheehan for a seat on the Board of Selectmen. There are also three open seats on the board of directors for School Administrative District 59 and three open seats on the Anson-Madison Water District board of trustees.

Residents will also be asked to vote on a $9,561,733 school budget.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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