County might study police consolidation plan

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Some members of the Suffolk County Legislature want to see a study on consolidating the five East End town police departments and other independent departments with the county police district.

On the East End, there is little to no support for consolidation among elected officials, several of whom unequivocally stated their opposition this week as the County Legislature considered approving the study. The officials also predicted that if consolidating the various town and village departments with the Suffolk County Police Department was ever put to a referendum on the East End, it would fail overwhelmingly.

“This will go down in flames if it ever gets to the ballot,” Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, who represents the South Fork, said Tuesday.

Consolidating the eastern police departments with the county district would cost East End taxpayers a tremendous amount and diminish police protection on the East End, Mr. Schneiderman maintained. The only reason to consolidate is to lower taxes for western Suffolk County residents at the expense of eastern taxpayers, he said.

“I’m going to vote against it. Absolutely,” the legislator said of the study. “I smell a rat, and I’m not going to support it.”

The legislature on Tuesday tabled the study, and the bill will have to be reintroduced next year. Mr. Schneiderman said he expects the resolution to approve a study will ultimately pass. He pointed out that 16 of the 18 county legislative districts fall within western Suffolk, and a 17th is split 50-50 between the east and west. About 90 percent of Mr. Schneiderman’s district is on the East End. “The political deck is definitely stacked against me,” he said.

Under a countywide police district and department, protection would be managed by people who do not live in the area and are unfamiliar with it, Mr. Schneiderman said. “In my mind, keeping it local is the best way to provide the high level of police protection,” he said, adding that he does not need a study to tell him that.

“This is pie in the sky,” said Westhampton Beach Village Mayor Conrad Teller. “Everybody is trying to consolidate everything.”

Mr. Teller, a former chief of both the Westhampton Beach Police Department and the Southampton Town Police Department, said that in around 1991, the village sent out a trial balloon on abolishing its police department. It did not fly, because residents did not expect they would get the same level of protection, he said.

One of the motivations behind forming the Suffolk County Police District in 1960 was because of poor communication and territoriality among police departments, Mr. Teller said. Communication has improved 100 percent since then, he said.

The Suffolk County Police are funded primarily through property taxes, Mr. Schneiderman pointed out. He said that while the East End makes up only 10 percent or so of the county population, the region pays a third of Suffolk’s property taxes. “We’d be paying a third of the bill and getting a tenth of the services, maybe less.”

Mr. Schneiderman said the legislators representing western Suffolk County have been asking for consolidation for a long time: “Of course they would want this if it’s going to lower their property taxes significantly.”

He acknowledged having one countywide department would create some efficiencies that would reduce costs but said the savings would be dwarfed by the increase in taxes East End residents would see. “Our costs would go through the roof,” he said.

East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill McGintee, who is also chairman of the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association, said Tuesday that he is OK with a study: “It doesn’t hurt if it is being done for the right reasons.” But he added he not see any circumstances under which a consolidated police department could reduce costs without cutting police protection to the East End.

East End police officers, for the most part, are paid less than county officers, Mr. McGintee said. So if the Suffolk County Police absorbed the five East End towns’ officers, personnel costs would increase. The only way to rectify that would be to cut the number of officers who patrol eastern Suffolk, he said. “I’m not sure anybody on the East End would be amenable to that,” he added.

“We will certainly review the study when it is made available. However, I cannot envision any scenario where we would entertain a consolidation with the Suffolk County Police District,” Sag Harbor Village Mayor Gregory Ferraris said.

Sag Harbor Village has its own police department, as does Southampton Village. When the Southampton Village Board received a letter in November asking for its support of a study, neither the mayor nor the trustees indicated any interest in giving up the village police department.

Having a single countywide department would settle some issues between the county and the East End.

Mr. Schneiderman and Legislator Edward Romaine led the charge in January when six long Island villages sued the county over sales tax revenue sharing to police departments. Mr. Schneiderman reported Tuesday that the lawsuit was dropped amicably because the county agreed to increase the share it gives to the East End police departments from 6.4 percent to about 9 percent in the 2009 budget. His goal is to bring the East End’s share up to 10 percent, but the increase was not codified into law. He said the inequity was significantly corrected but warned that the county could backtrack in the future without a law.

Ryan Horn, legislative aide to Southampton Town Supervisor Linda Kabot, said that, considering the county’s reluctance to share sales tax revenues equitably with the East End police departments, he has no reason to expect the county would share property tax revenue for public safety equitably.

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