For decades, Saugerties leaders talked about merging the town and village police departments, but it took a fiscal crisis in the village to make it happen. In the years leading up to the merger, which took effect Jan. 1, 2011, village residents expressed concern that the loss of the department would mean diminished service. Other observers questioned the promised cost-savings. But for the most part, the merger has gone off without a hitch.
Local officials say there have not been significant complaints about service levels in the village, though some in the town have said the deal was bad for town taxpayers because their taxes increased at a higher rate than they would have if there’d been no merger. (In response, former Supervisor Greg Helsmoortel has pointed out that if the town did not make an agreement, which included over $400,000 in direct payments from the village to the town, the village could have unilaterally dissolved its department and the town would have been required to respond to calls in the village anyway.)
Attendance at the League of Women Voters’ recent forum on the merger suggests the community is, for the most part, satisfied; eight attended, several of them members of the league.
Police Chief Joseph Sinagra was on hand to make the case with numbers: before the merger, the two departments had a combined budget of $2.5 million and a total of 69 employees, full- and part-time. Currently, the department has 42 employees and a budget of $2.1 million.
Sinagra praised the league for its advocacy on shared services. “I have to tell you, [you] had it right back in the 1970s. You saw it then, and you realized that into the future, there was going to be a savings no matter what.”
The league has been working on consolidation of village and town services since 1970, said Mary Finger.
“At first we found opposition,” Finger said. “People in the village wanted their identity and immediacy of services. We supported the merger of the dispatchers and the assessors, and we’ve tried four times to encourage a police merger.”
Fairweather Consulting, which advised the town and village prior to the merger, had predicted a total budget of $2.4 million to $2.8 million, Sinagra said. The consultants based the estimate on a calculation that the department needed 27 full-time employees — four more than the department currently has.
Mayor William Murphy said his main concern was that nobody lose their job. Thanks to several retirements, the six officers who wanted to join the new department were able to do so.
He elaborated on the financial impact of the merger to the village. “In the last year we had the police force, the village operating budget was $3.2 million, of which just over a million was police. The next year, 2011, would have brought an increase to $3.4 million, largely because of contributions to the police retirement system and everything else coming down from the state, and I believe if the village still had a police force our budget would be in excess of $3.6 million by now.”
The officers in the town and village were represented by different unions, and had different pay scales and contractual conditions, Murphy said. “But once they went over, everything seemed to iron itself out.”
Lieutenant Stephen Filak said the transition went well because the officers had worked with one another before. “You had a bunch of guys that knew each other for 10, 15 or 20 years. When the clock struck 12 it literally was seamless. I went from being the midnight shift supervisor in the village on December 31 at 11:59 p.m. and at 12 midnight I was the midnight shift supervisor for the Town of Saugerties Police.”
From the town’s point of view “the numbers always made sense,” said Councilman Bruce Leighton. “When the mayor, the chief and the lieutenant all say it was a success that’s something we can hang our hat on. I’m just proud of the job that the village and the town did. I’m proud of the job the police did, and I agree we have one of the best police departments in the state.”
“This has been an incredible journey to do this,” said Councilman Fred Costello. He praised the police force for its professionalism and dedication to service, crediting former Police Chief Barbaria as well as Sinagra for the quality of police work.
The merger was “the most important cost-saving event” in recent Saugerties history, Costello said. Even with increases in pension costs and inflation, “we’re still ahead of where we would have been in today’s dollars.”
Costello said the combined department didn’t just save money, it improved service. Had the departments remained separate, “we would never have been able to have three detectives, we would never have had a canine program, and we might never have been able to sustain an SRO (school resource officer) program,” Costello said. And, speaking to the issue of the cost of the department for town residents, “there is no longer a difference between a town resident and a village resident when it comes to police services. We are assessed on the value of our homes equally, and the money goes to the Saugerties Police.”
With construction and home values down, towns and villages are facing tighter budgets every year, Costello said, and the need to find ways to save money becomes greater. “With the police merger we were able to deliver better service for less money. This is the model the community had to adopt and apply to other areas where services can be shared.” He cited an initiative that has the town and county sharing the snow plowing of county roads. “It’s such an obvious thing that the question is, why haven’t we done this before?”
On an informal basis the town and village are already helping each other with loans of equipment or sharing of manpower, Costello said. This sharing could be expanded to save considerable money.
Murphy suggested that the sharing could be expanded to include the school district.
While best known for its election season candidate forums, the league periodically focuses on individual issues and takes positions when members see a need. The police department was always high priority, because both departments made up such a large share of the budget, but the league has also advocated for other shared services.