Since 2004, city and county leaders have worked steadily and cooperatively to move Schenectady forward through an unprecedented era of economic progress and cooperation.
However, County Chairwoman Susan Savage and County Attorney Chris Gardner, both personal friends of mine and both with whom I have worked so well to achieve much for our community, have seemingly decided on behalf of the county’s 151,427 residents to summarily dismiss the idea of exploring the benefits of police consolidation in Schenectady County, calling it unnecessary, unachievable and doomed to failure.
I respectfully disagree with Susan and Chris on this issue. Instead, I propose that county residents be allowed to learn the facts and decide for themselves by embracing state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s offer to help Schenectady see if an inter-municipal consolidation of police could bring improved service and public safety at less cost for county taxpayers through a comprehensive and fast-tracked feasibility study.
Although the well-publicized and documented professional failures of a growing number city police officers, both recently and over the years, provide their own impetus for city leaders to seriously consider the dissolution of the department in favor of consolidation, the practical and economic reasons for consolidation must also be part of the equation.
Attorney General Cuomo has strongly advocated consolidation of local government services in New York state as a means to cut government waste and to reduce cost. He has advanced a comprehensive plan designed to streamline the often convoluted and cumbersome process of consolidating local government entities, including the myriad special taxing districts across the state. The attorney general’s proposal does not mandate consolidation, rather it restructures state law to empower citizens and local governments to make decisions themselves according to what works best for their communities.
With more than 10,500 individual governments across the state, including layers of antiquated government entities and special taxing districts, New Yorkers are saddled with the nation’s highest taxes. In Schenectady County, the state’s second smallest county by square mileage, there are more than 130 individual government taxing entities at work.
I have never met anyone who told me they are against lower taxes or improved services. Therefore, I am fairly certain that our county residents would at least be receptive to finding out if savings could occur without sacrificing quality of service. We owe it to them to explore and consider all options.
As mayor, I have a responsibility to determine what policing options are available beyond the troubling status quo. At the same time, all county taxpayers could benefit by knowing if there may be a viable way to reduce the cost of government without sacrificing their local police services or quality.
By undertaking a targeted feasibility study, elected officials, law enforcement agencies, unions and county residents alike can be fully informed of the advantages and disadvantages of options available. And with that information in hand, a decision can be reasonably and responsibly made.
Schenectady has already proven that government consolidation works. Our community is at the forefront of effective cost- and service-sharing in New York through the combination of city and county vehicle maintenance at the county garage that is saving taxpayers up to $1 million per year. We have merged our city and county affirmative action offices, made joint improvements in city and town parks, and secured state grants for a shared salt shed that will supply county and city road crews. We are also working together to explore the cost and operational benefits of a centralized emergency dispatch system for police and fire agencies.
Many of the issues raised by Gardner and Savage in their public opposition of police consolidation in Schenectady are either factually misplaced or incorrect. For example:
— They cite Section 137 of the New York State Second Class Cities Law as a valuable disciplinary tool that the city would lose should the police department be dissolved. Indeed, Section 137 is valuable to Schenectady, since it allows our public safety commissioner to be the sole determiner of discipline within the department. The fact is that should a new, countywide police department be created, those same provisions and inherent management advantages could be statutorily imposed and applied to a new department through special legislation.
— Gardner and Savage also incorrectly contend my motivation for proposing the study of a countywide or multi jurisdictional police agency is simply to do away with the current collective bargaining agreement between the city and the Schenectady Police Benevolent Association (PBA). However, intergovernmental consolidation has proven to provide multiple organizational and financial benefits for taxpayers, and police consolidation should be actively considered regardless of existing contractual shortcomings.
— Gardner argues that by eliminating its collective bargaining agreement with the police union, the city would violate the Taylor Law by unilaterally transferring bargaining unit work to non-bargaining unit members. However, Schenectady’s corporation counsel and our contract labor counsel point to the fact that Section 83 of the state Civil Service Law, and court decisions interpreting that law, permit the merger of existing police agencies into a combined force. Further, Article V of the Civil Service Law details the requirements that must be followed by municipalities attempting to accomplish such a merger.
— Savage and Gardner’s assertion that the existing and dysfunctional provisions in the current contract would be required to be transferred to a newly created countywide police department is also misplaced. The Civil Service Law does not require the transfer of existing contractual rights. Instead, the law requires the parties to negotiate an entirely new contract. Moreover, in creating a new police department, a new collective bargaining agreement will be negotiated under which the employer can lay to rest the repeated claims of “past practices” raised as an impediment to management in administering the contract.
My hope is that ongoing disciplinary reforms within the department, coupled with a zero-tolerance policy of those officers who continually disregard the call for professional conduct, will take hold and enable the department’s majority of dedicated, hard-working police officers to change the ingrained culture and perception. But, at the same time, we must act responsibly by researching the alternatives should those efforts prove unattainable.
Under the mantra of “working together works,” the city and county have partnered to accomplish a great deal. We should continue that progress by remaining open-minded and fundamentally committed to providing the most effective and efficient services possible to those we are elected to serve.
Without political influence or personal prejudice, the same logic can and should be applied to a thorough examination of the financial and operational virtues of consolidated police services in Schenectady County.
Brian U. Stratton is the mayor of Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.
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