Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton is beginning to look like Sisyphus, the figure in Greek mythology who was given the pointless and interminable task of pushing a rock up hill; it would always fall back and he would have to start again. That rock would be the city’s dysfunctional police department, which Stratton has tried everything a reasonable person could think of to get up the hill, but its dead weight keeps falling back on him and the residents of Schenectady.
We applaud him for continuing to try — talking seriously about abolishing the department and creating a countywide force. And we regret that his plan not only has been rejected by his friends at the county level, but, in an extraordinary step, publicly repudiated at a press conference held by Legislative Chairwoman Susan Savage yesterday.
The day started promisingly, with a Gazette story indicating that state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was interested in helping and would try to get a grant for a feasibility study. Such a study is needed — not to document the city’s police department myriad problems, as Savage said at her press conference, but to show how police coverage could be maintained for the various municipalities with a countywide department and how much money might be saved. Efficiency from consolidation is the main reason Cuomo has been going around the state championing it, with a plan to clear up and streamline state laws and make consolidating easier for governments that want to.
And there would be efficiencies and savings from a countywide department, starting with the savings that would surely come from getting rid of the city’s police contract, which is way too generous with sick time, comp time and union time while restricting disciplinary options. With a police budget of $16 million (more than $20 million with fringe benefits), there should be millions to spread around to the towns and county, which are all starved for money.
Since the city’s prime motivation, as Stratton said, isn’t saving money, but removing the police union’s stranglehold, it would probably be willing to give most, or all, of its savings to the towns and county. Other savings could come from having fewer administrators, and perhaps avoiding an expensive new police station being considered as part of a new town hall complex in Rotterdam.
Unfortunately, the day that started promisingly ended discouragingly because the county government, whose support would be needed to make this work, doesn’t want to do it. The county Democrats’ slogan “working together works” apparently only goes so far.
Savage’s arguments either miss the point or argue against themselves. She says that “shifting the underlying problems facing the city police department to another level of government will not solve the problem.” But in this case, it actually could solve the problem, which is why Stratton wants to do it. She also says that “what is needed are real solutions instead of politically expedient ones that pit one community against another.” But pitting one against the other is exactly what she was doing with her press conference.
Finally, she argues that under state law, the city has the tools to manage and discipline its officers if it wanted to. We’d just like to point that this is the police union’s line, and anyone who knows the situation in Schenectady knows it isn’t true. But the union controls the Conservative Party in Schenectady County, and its endorsement could be important for some Democrats on the county Legislature and in the towns. Is that the political expediency Savage was talking about?