The Chemung County Matters blog exists to help promote discussions about local issues. The views expressed by guest bloggers do not necessarily reflect my own, but are rather shared here in order to provide information and hopefully stimulate ideas.
The guest blog post below, submitted today by Elmira City Councilman Jim Waters, a retired Chief of the Elmira Police Department, focuses on the potential creation of a countywide police force, a topic he accurately points out has been missing from much of the campaign dialogue so far.
My view is similar to what Councilman Waters suggests insofar as I agree this topic must at least be part of the discussion. As I have gone door-to-door in the 7th Legislative District, I have heard countless times that residents do not want to lose our police officers in West Elmira. I could not agree more, as having a law enforcement presence does a lot to discourage crime and promote traffic safety. I am a mom raising two young daughters in the Town of Elmira, and therefore fully understand why people feel so strongly about this matter.
At the same time, the cost of maintaining six separate law enforcement agencies plus the state police in a county with just over 80,000 people is extremely high. Unless the financial picture of Chemung County as its municipalities improves dramatically, the notion of a combining the local agencies is unlikely to go away – so we might as well explore what options are out there.
I find one thing Councilman Waters noted below particularly persuasive: the people who should be involved in designing and developing what a potential countywide police force ought to be the employees impacted by it, not hired outside consultants or elected local bureaucrats. Law enforcement officers know what their needs are better than anyone, and they are the ones who clearly should be permitted to take the lead on this.
The hot topic this election season has been tax reallocation, as well it should be. The topic ought to be discussed at length by what has ironically become two sides of the issue, which is County vs. (insert municipality here). What makes the topic peculiarly ironic is that it has somehow morphed into a two-sided issue, bearing in mind taxpayers paying County taxes are the same taxpayers paying city, town, and/or village taxes. So, I’m at a loss to identify the intended benefactor for whom this conflict is intended to profit.
Another topic of contention has been the claim by the County asserting they have not raised property taxes in 14 years. Commendable, if it were true, but their goal of no tax increase along with the sales tax reallocation only caused increased property taxes for the municipalities within the County. Thus, the taxpayer paid more taxes regardless – a dollar taken from the same pocket is still a dollar taken.
These topics should be discussed at length and in good faith where the interests of the taxpayer are the concern rather than someone’s political legacy. These conversations should be occurring between the representatives of the municipalities and the county legislators, all of whom seem to have a communication barrier through which all information is filtered and fed as needed by their administrations. Repeated and frequent dialogue is the key to avoiding misunderstandings that distract from our primary objectives. It only makes good sense that our representatives start communicating with one another to get a more unprejudiced picture of the issues; they do represent the same people after all.
What has NOT been a hot topic, but should be, is what would be the largest savings in shared services yet: a countywide police department. This is a politically and emotionally charged topic, thus one being avoided in the campaign process. But let’s look at why it could be a savings, as well as how it would be beneficial to the taxpayer and the employees who would work there:
Even if combining police agencies didn’t save a dime, the efficiency of a countywide police agency would make a positive and notable impact in preventing and solving crime. There would be a more effective information-gathering and sharing process for one thing. There would also be the ability to assign personnel where and when the crime is occurring regardless of boundaries. While the criminal takes advantage of municipality lines, the police cannot, which produces the unwanted tendency to become “territorial” with information within the law enforcement community.
Chemung County encompasses 411 square miles with a total of 6 police agencies with 6 department heads (not counting the State Police). Most of those agencies have additional supervisory staff and the larger ones have personnel assigned to various investigative departments and specialized functions, many of which are duplicated within the individual agencies. In a small 411 square mile county, is it necessary to have 6 department heads? Is it necessary to have duplication of supervisory/investigative staff across the County just to represent a certain geographical area? Does it make sense to fund and train two tactical teams or other specialized units? Would it be possible for the supervisory staff of the largest department to be enough for the supervision of the entire County? These are some of the questions we should hear being asked and discussed by those running for office (and those in office) because the answers could have a significant, positive financial impact for every taxpayer in the County.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting a reduction in police services. I’m not encouraging layoffs or the elimination of existing employees. What I am suggesting is an examination of the existing agencies with the idea of making one agency that will be more efficient and cost-effective. I am proposing the development of a five- or ten-year plan to shape the agency desired without any negative impact on those employees already in place.
For example, leave all six department heads in place and make them a police commission with one being elected Commissioner based on education, training, experience, and other criteria agreed upon by the Commission. Each would retain his/her rank as Sheriff or Chief and would do so until retirement. Upon retirement of the Sheriff/Chief, the representative position would remain but at a reduced, less expensive rank, say, for this example, a Lieutenant.
Another example: If a police officer is a member of the one Police Department and wishes to remain so, let them; the area must be staffed regardless. If they chose, they can remain within that geographic location until they retire. However, new hires (or any existing employees who desire to do so) will be assigned where needed. At first there would be very little change for those who do not want it. The only change would be the name of the department they work for; everything else would remain the same. The plan/goal would be to develop the department over the course of time to get it where it is the most cost-efficient yet more effective with little to no impact on existing employees and no loss of benefits.
Cost savings, just in supervisory staff alone, would be approximately two million dollars per year (and more over time) and that isn’t taking into consideration a reduction in training costs, purchasing costs, and the elimination of duplicated services.
Subsequently, due to the potential for significant savings to our taxpayers at a time when we hear more and more about tax increases, this topic should be widely discussed by those running for political office. Moreover, it should also be deliberated by the people who are impacted by the development of such a department: the employees themselves. There is an opportunity for the employees to gain, not lose, with this type of department. There are greater financial and professional opportunities with larger departments that would not be available in any of the smaller ones. Done correctly, the development of such a department would be a win-win for all involved, if self-interest is set aside and replaced with public interest.
It has been suggested by some to launch a study to exam the feasibility of developing a countywide police agency. I ask why? Why spend upward to $40,000 of taxpayer monies to fund a study whose conclusion would be less than what would be created by the very people who do the work every day? The people who should be developing such an agency, and this is imperative, ought to be the employees impacted by it, not some hired organization whose opinions will be considered subjective and one-sided.
To be successfully created and implemented, this new agency should be blueprinted with the combined effort of the department heads and union representatives. A committee should be appointed that is comprised of these knowledgeable people, along with representatives of the municipalities, and given the task of developing a plan for such an agency. This Committee would consider the employees impacted, the efficiency of such a department, and the financial benefits not only to the taxpayer but to the employees themselves.
–James Waters, First District City Councilmember – Former Elmira Police Chief, Retired.
 Chemung County Sheriff’s Department, Elmira Police, Elmira Heights Police, West Elmira Police and the Horseheads Village Police.
Please note – the original post also inadvertently included the Spencer Police.