For Clay Supervisor James Rowley, it’s simple: to save town taxpayers a significant sum of money, the town should merge its police force with the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department.
But for the Clay Police Benevolent Association, it’s not that easy. Cutting the police department, the PBA argues, means town residents will see a significant reduction in services, and, they assert, the savings aren’t as great as Rowley believes.
The merger, which would make the Clay PD part of the sheriff’s department and turn the existing police station into a sheriff’s department mini-station, is up for a referendum vote June 23. If approved, the town would enter into a five-year deal with the county with the option to exit the contract after two. Both the state and the county have reviewed the proposal, but have deferred making a decision until after the referendum.
Rowley believes that Clay residents will save some $17 million over the next 10 years.
The PBA representatives say that’s not true.
“There will be no savings in our opinion,” said Lieutenant Fred Corey, a 20-year veteran of the Clay PD. “The numbers they’re putting out there are one-sided. I believe it couldn’t be done for the cost they say. The costs have to be borne by somebody, whether it’s the town or the county.”
According to the PBA, each household in the town would save about 18 cents a day under the proposal.
In addition, Corey said the current contract draft calls for a 9.2 percent administrative fee to be paid to the sheriff’s department.
“That’s going to negate any savings,” he said.
And even if there are savings, according to PBA representative and part-time traffic officer Joe Caputo, it’s unlikely taxpayers will actually see them.
“Have your taxes ever gone down?” Caputo said. “They’ll find a way to take the money from [this merger] and move it to the highway department or somewhere else. They’ll just shuffle it around. I don’t see the benefit of that.”
Caputo is also suspicious of the county’s motives.
“Oh, there’s definitely something in it for them,” he said. “People forget that the sheriff’s department has a budget deficit every year. The way the county looks at this, we become another source of revenue. They’re just going to spread the cost around.”
Corey summed up the PD’s argument by stating that the savings aren’t defensible.
“As much as we can’t specifically state that there won’t be savings, they can’t specifically state there will,” he said.
Not so, said Rowley.
“I don’t know where they’re getting their numbers,” said Rowley, who is employed as a certified public accountant in addition to being town supervisor. “According to my analysis, we’ll see a $1.3 million permanent tax cut in 2009. Even going by the most conservative estimates, the projected savings over the next 10 years will add up to $17 million.”
Rowley said his numbers have been independently verified by Kane, Bowles and Moore, a CPA firm in Liverpool.
Rowley readily admitted that the savings would not be immediate; the town would likely break even in the first year, according to his figures, as it pays to train new deputies and provide parity in pay to Clay officers. But the town will see significant savings beginning in the second year and well beyond.
According to Rowley, the savings come from the elimination of duplicated services, including administration and support staff (Rowley said the sheriff’s administrative fee is not enough to negate the savings), technology procurement and liability and workers’ compensation insurance. The merger would also eliminate the position of commissioner and five part-time police positions.
Rowley also addressed Caputo’s argument that the county has a vested financial interest in the proposal.
“That’s just not true,” he said. “This will be paid for solely by Clay residents. It’s on our dime. It’s not going to get spread around the county.”
Rowley said the county’s interest in the proposal is due to its potential as a move toward government modernization.
Another major issue of concern is that of the fate of the current Clay officers. Rowley says he doesn’t want the current police officers adversely affected by the consolidation.
“The only thing I’m required to do is to negotiate the effects of the transfer on the officers,” said Rowley. “And I am concerned about them. I want to make sure that we can take care of them, so we’re making them whole [guaranteeing there will be no pay cut should the transfer go through] through 2009.”
Rowley also demanded provisions in the contract with the county to guarantee any full-time officer a job with the sheriff’s department. Though the department only has 13 positions open for the Clay mini-station, the other three will be absorbed into the department. The contract also calls for officers to go over at rank and maintain comparable health and pension benefits.
“Basically, you’re going to see the same faces,” Rowley said. “These are the same officers that know the community.”
Corey said he expected that, if the merger went through, most of the officers would take jobs with the sheriff’s department, at least at first.
“They’d have to,” Corey said. “They need jobs. But I don’t know how long they’d stay.”
The heart of the argument, however, is the question of whether residents would see a significant reduction in service should the merger go through.
Absolutely, Corey and the PBA assert.
“There will be a reduction in services,” Corey said. “There’s no way of maintaining the same level we provide now.”
Services Corey argues would be cut include the town’s youth officer, free accident and incident reports and fingerprinting services, candy checks at Halloween and a link to the school safety officer, who is a part-time Clay police officer. Corey said the current contract draft only calls for two road cars and doesn’t guarantee any other services.
“There could be an additional cost for additional services,” he said. “The town might have to pay more for, say, a response in a major accident. That’s not outlined in the contract.”
The PBA also expressed concern that, as a county agency, the sheriff could pull cars specifically designated for Clay in the event of a major investigation or other event.
“The sheriff’s department can do what they want with their personnel,” Caputo said. “They can pull them from Clay whenever they want.”
Caputo noted that, as the contract only calls for road cars, residents would not get the same caring and immediate response they get now when they request information or assistance.
“People in the community are used to getting immediate service,” he said. “They don’t want to have to go through all of the bureaucracy to get their information. They’ll have to do that [if the merger goes through].”
“People will come in off the street and there will be no one there to help them,” Corey added.
Again, Rowley disagreed. He argued that residents would not only receive the same level of service but would actually see an improvement if the merger goes through.
“I think they’ll get better service out of this arrangement,” the supervisor said. “Right now, the sheriff has two to three patrol cars serving the Clay area. This proposal doesn’t change that. It just adds the two dedicated patrols, two more full-time cars. Nothing changes with the current arrangement. The response times will be exactly the same.”
Under the proposal, Clay residents would have faster and easier access to services the sheriff provides, including the diving squad, SWAT team and accident responses, at no additional cost.
“Right now, if there’s a major investigation — a homicide or violent crime or major accident — we have to call in the sheriffs anyway. Now that communication will happen more quickly.”
As for the PBA’s assertion that Clay would suffer from a lack of coverage in case of a major incident elsewhere, Rowley said there was no cause for concern.
“These patrols aren’t for the rest of the county — they’re for us, just for the town,” he said. “If there is a major incident in, say, Cicero and our guys are needed, it’s temporary. Our guys do that now.”
Rowley said he has the flexibility under the contract to add services if necessary.
“If people really want the candy check, we can pay for that for one night,” he said. “I can ask for an extra patrol and just pay for that patrol, not another whole person. It’s just a question of, how much are people willing to pay for these things? We can give them the basic service at a much lower price and add on if necessary.”
Regardless of the way the vote goes, both sides say they’ll accept it.
“If people decide they really want their own police force, I’m okay with that,” Rowley said. “But I truly believe this is the way to go.”
“Jim is sticking up for what he thinks is right, and I respect him for that,” Corey said. “Obviously, though, I disagree with him. There’s no doubt we need to save money, but the last place to do it is police protection. There’s got to be a better way to do it. Save money where you can — not where you shouldn’t.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.