Sagaponack Village Mayor Don Louchheim says he will ask his fellow Village Board members to decide next week whether or not the village should proceed with plans to form its own police department.
In the wake of a meeting on Saturday attended by dozens of village residents who expressed a mix of support for and objections to the village creating its own police force, Mr. Louchheim said that the board needs to make a decision about how it will proceed, quickly. He said that Southampton Town officials had taken no steps to present the village with any alternate police coverage proposals that might head off such a move—something village officials were hoping for.
“I will ask for a vote from the board next week on whether we should proceed with planning for our own department—not committing to do it, but planning for it—or to punt,” Mr. Louchheim told the four other board members on Monday afternoon, during a discussion of the previous Saturday’s meeting with village residents. The next Village Board meeting is Monday, August 19—and the mayor added, “Monday will be D-Day.”
Mr. Louchheim also proposed that the village hire former Southampton Town Police Chief William Wilson Jr. as a consultant to draft a detailed budget for the formation of a village police department, so that the Village Board would have specific numbers to apply to its deliberations leading to Monday’s decision. But Village Trustee Lee Foster, the deputy mayor, objected to the hiring, which Mr. Louchheim proposed at $2,000, and asked that the issue also be put off until the following week.
Additionally, Mr. Louchheim nodded to the possibility that if the Village Board decides to proceed with drafting more detailed plans for its own police force, the issue could be brought to village residents for approval at a referendum in the coming months—a step that several people called for at Saturday’s meeting. At the meeting, Mr. Louchheim had said, however, that a simple majority of support for the formation of a police department was not enough to justify it. He said the Village Board wanted to see that there was broad support for the idea before it would proceed.
Broad support was not evident at Saturday’s meeting, attended by several dozen residents of the tiny eight-year-old village, though neither was there a consensus of opposition. On Monday, the mayor recounted that there appeared to be three trains of thought among those who voiced their opinions at the meeting. There were those who believed that additional police coverage was not needed and would only be an inconvenience to residents, in the form of more traffic tickets. Others were opposed to forming a village police department, largely because of concerns about expanding bureaucracy, but were open to pursuing better coverage, or lowered costs, from the village’s coverage agreement with the Southampton Town Police Department. And still others firmly supported the formation of a village police force, for reasons of financial savings and better police protection.
And, indeed, many in the crowd seemed to vacillate between two or more of those positions during the two-hour discussion. Applause alternately resounded for speakers who raised libertarian objections to the idea of the village, which was formed in 2005 with pledges that it would remain “bare bones,” now forming a police department and hiring a chief with a six-figure salary, and those who made logistical arguments for the economic sense of forming a small department and freeing the village from the $2.3 million in annual taxes it pays to the town for minimal police coverage. The most strident objections largely focused on the concern that forming a police department, while possibly saving village residents on their tax bills at first, would lead to continually growing costs and expanding bureaucracy.
“There are a lot of things that crop up in a budget that you can’t plan for,” resident Robert Kall, a retired police officer, said to the board. “You’re talking about budgeting for five officers—what if one of them gets hurt and is out for six months? Then what? Then you have to budget for six.”
The Village Board has been discussing the idea of a forming its own police department for more than two years. Village officials have said that the hefty amount Sagaponack residents pay in property taxes to Southampton Town does not justify the minimal coverage they receive, even after the town began stationing an officer in the village on summer days. For most of the time, the Village Board has noted, Sagaponack is part of a large sector stretching from Water Mill to the East Hampton Town line that is patrolled by a single vehicle.
Village officials have said that the town has been unwilling to work with them, or to support proposed state legislation that would allow a renegotiating of the village’s tax contribution for police, or an increase in patrolling. The village has no power to negotiate either point as it stands, but forming a department would open up opportunities for negotiation.
Forming a village department would require a minimum of two officers and a department chief, and lawmakers have projected that the officers could be called upon only to cover one daytime shift, perhaps even only in the high season. But the village could then negotiate for additional coverage with other departments, or with Southampton Town, from a new bargaining position, at a rate well below what they pay Southampton now. Board members have said estimates show they could save between $750,000 and $1 million a year through such an arrangement and get more dedicated coverage for their money.
The $2.3 million paid by Sagaponack accounts for nearly 10 percent of the Southampton Town Police Department’s annual budget. Department brass have said they are already down eight officers from the staffing levels they would like to have to provide ample police protection to the entire town, due to stringent budgeting by the Town Board. Losing the Sagaponack tax revenue could require layoffs of several more officers.
Some residents at Saturday’s meeting acknowledged that the largely crime-free village probably does not need a more comprehensive blanket of police protection, but saw a bottom line that pointed most sensibly to the formation of a village police department.
“We are paying $2.3 million, and we are not getting the service, so the best thing to do would be to reduce our costs,” resident Elliot Meisel said. “As it is, we may be over-policed. But with Southampton, we’re stuck with a $2.3 million budget, and we’re forced to increase police services. The way to get what we really need … is with our own police force.”