Richard Wirth, a Republican who is finishing his first term as the city’s public safety commissioner in charge of the police and fire departments, is being challenged in the Nov. 8 election by local dentist Chris Mathiesen, a Democrat.
Mathiesen believes the public safety department needs a “fresh approach,” especially when it comes to what he describes as the “out-of-control nightlife scene” on Caroline Street.
He thinks better fire and emergency services must be provided to the city’s eastern plateau, the area east of the Northway. He also wants the City Council to at least start talking about building a new police and court facility.
Wirth says he is proud of his record of securing state and federal grants to help the city cope with the high costs of running a police and fire department. He was able to secure a $663,000 federal Safer Grant that allowed the city to hire back seven firefighters who had been laid off for budgetary reasons two years ago.
Among his top issues during the campaign are to “keep city taxes as low as possible” and reduce city expenses while maintaining essential services.
In answer to Mathiesen’s concerns about problems on Caroline Street, such as several large fights this past summer in the early morning hours that required not only city police but also state police and sheriff’s deputies to quell, Wirth said requiring the bars to close an hour or two earlier than the current 4 a.m. closing time has already been discussed at length and rejected. Mathiesen would like to try closing the bars at 3 a.m.
Wirth said if the bars were required to close at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. rather than 4 a.m. it would “just push the problems into other parts of the city,” where fights would erupt at private parties convened after closing time.
“The most important thing is that I’m available 24/7,” Wirth said. “I’m a full-time commissioner.”
Wirth retired some years ago after 35 years as special assistant to the commissioner of the town of Hempstead, Long Island, Department of Parks and Recreation. Even with his private investigation business, he said he has the time to devote to the city position, which pays a modest $14,500 per year.
Mathiesen said the commissioner position is meant to be part time. He said the commissioner has a full-time deputy paid more than $66,000 per year and other staff.
Mathiesen questions the City Council’s decision to build a parking garage where the city’s Woodlawn Avenue parking lot is currently located.
He said the city would be better off at least starting a discussion and setting aside the money for a police/court facility to replace the cramped and outdated police headquarters in the basement of City Hall.
The issue of police overtime spending has surfaced during the campaign. Wirth said that police overtime has been higher than desired this year because of retirements that created vacancies and police officers who can’t work because of injuries.
Wirth said at the same time, because a federal grant allowed the fire department to rehire laid off personnel, the fire department overtime budget is less than half what it was in 2010. He said he will use this money to cover the additional police overtime costs.
He said the police department is filling vacant positions and has three people in the Police Academy. By April the department is expected to be up to 67 officers, up from 60 officers some months ago. This will reduce 2012 overtime costs considerably, he said.
Wirth said the current economic conditions do not warrant spending on a new public safety building for police and courts. “You can only do what’s affordable,” Wirth said.
He has money in his 2012 budget to make additional renovations to the current police headquarters in City Hall.
Mathiesen said the City Council must show more respect for democratic principles and citizens’ wishes. He said when over 2,000 Saratoga citizens signed a petition to have a charter change — from the current commission form of government to a city council-city manager type of government — referendum placed on the election ballot, the council should not have fought the request and kept it off the ballot. He said the city should not be spending tax dollars to appeal a state Supreme Court decision that would have allowed the charter change referendum to be placed on the ballot.
“A robust debate on the issue of city charter change and the opportunity to vote on it is the best way to proceed,” Mathiesen said.
Wirth said his department responds to residents’ concerns and requests immediately. He said he meets with special interest groups and downtown business representatives whenever requested.
“We respond to people’s concerns,” Wirth said.
BALLOT LINES: Democrat, Working Families Party
EDUCATION/EXPERIENCE: Bachelor’s degree Boston College, dentistry degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University Dental School. Dental practice in Saratoga Springs, seven years on Saratoga Springs Zoning Board of Appeals
PERSONAL: Married with two sons, three daughters and two grandsons
BALLOT LINES: Republican, Conservative
EDUCATION/EXPERIENCE: Bachelor’s degree from Unity College in Maine and a master’s in professional studies from Adelphi University in Garden City. A licensed private investigator and president and owner of Craig Investigations Inc.
PERSONAL: Married with three daughters, one son, and five grandchildren
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