Sagaponack Decision On Police Force Looms Large For Town

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Sagaponack Village officials will decide this weekend whether to form a village police force and, if so, what that force will look like.

The decision looms large for residents of the tiny, affluent village. But it could have an even greater impact, in a practical sense, on the Town of Southampton and its police force, which stands to lose a substantial amount of its annual funding should Sagaponack shed its blanket of protection.

The Village Board will hold a special meeting on Saturday at 9 a.m., at which it will welcome input from residents before its members consider a vote on a resolution to create a village police force. Village lawmakers, with help from former Southampton Town Police Chief William Wilson, have presented residents with a package of cost estimates for a village force that shows the potential for hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even more than $1 million, in annual tax revenue savings for residents by creating a village force and shaking off the annual tax paid for town protection.

For the rest of the town’s residents, however, those savings for Sagaponack taxpayers would mean a greater burden—or less police protection.

Sagaponack, by virtue of its hyper-valuable mansions and almost non-existent crime rate, contributes a greatly outsized portion of tax revenue to the Town Police budget, compared to the police coverage it requires. If the village were to form its own police force and shed all ties with the Southampton Town department, the loss in tax revenue would be a complicated and painful adjustment for the rest of the town.

On Wednesday morning Sagaponack Village posted new details of its projected budget were the village to form a police department. The budget looks at three scenarios for the village police force: a department staffed solely with 6-8 part-time officers and a chief, responsible for covering just one shift a day with the other two covered by a neighboring town police force through an inter-municipal contract; a department of 12-14 part-time officers and a chief on duty for all three daily shifts, year-round with a stand-alone police headquarters building; and a force of at least four full-time officers and a compliment of part-time officers and a part-time chief covering all daily shifts, year-round.

The mock budgets released on Wednesday show a $35,000 annual salary for a department chief, a role required by state law if the village were to form a police department. They also show salaries and benefits for police officers ranging from about $107,000 a year to more than $775 thousand, depending on which form the department takes. Total projected costs of operating a village department in the first year range, according to the figures released by the village, from $1.2 million for a year-round, three-shift, part-time department to about $1.7 million for a department of six-full time officers and a dedicated police headquarters.

Mr. Wilson, who worked with the village to draft the pro-forma budgets, has said he would be interested in being the department chief.

“It’s going to keep us quite busy this fall if this happens,” Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said this week. “I’m hopeful that the good sense of staying within the Town Police district and level of coverage that we offer will be seen by Sagaponack as the right choice.”

Based on assessed property values, Sagaponack Village contributes approximately $2.3 million to the Town Police district fund, about 10 percent of the annual budget for the department. But thanks to very low crime rates, the village, from a police protection standpoint, does not call for much coverage.

For decades, the quiet, quasi-rural hamlet was part of a large sector dozens of square miles across—including Noyac, Bridgehampton and Water Mill—that the Town Police dedicated just one car to covering for most of the year. Two years ago, with the elected officials of the village grumbling about the cost of police coverage and raising the possibility of forming its own force, the town pledged to assign an officer to patrol only Sagaponack’s cluster of streets for most of each day during the busy summer months. That assignment is still a small part of the 85-officer police department and a shadow of the coverage that is dedicated to areas with higher crime and more nuisance issues, like Flanders and Hampton Bays.

Village officials have said they could save as much as $1 million a year by forming their own force. They have presented their residents a collection of options that range from forming a full-time village police force to forming a skeleton force for part-time coverage and contracting with either Southampton Town or East Hampton Town, or both, for supplemental coverage and other services. If the village formed a full-time force or a part-time force and then opted to contract only with East Hampton Town for supplemental coverage, Southampton Town would lose all of the village’s tax revenues.

Already short-handed, and relying on overtime for part-time officers to provide adequate coverage, if the Town Police were forced to absorb a 10-percent budget cut, it could mean even tighter spending constraints, or substantial tax hikes for town residents. Ms. Throne-Holst said that the loss of all of Sagaponack’s police revenues would most likely force the town to balance a volatile mixture of cuts to police coverage with hikes in property taxes.

“That’s the yin and yang here, isn’t it,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “It would leave us having to reorganize how we approach police coverage, how we dispatch sector cars, the level of coverage we dedicate to certain areas, changes to how we use part-time and seasonal officers, while making sure we are not compromising public safety. It would be a significant challenge.”

To offset some of the revenue loss, the town could also look to shift some costs of the police department, like the purchase of police vehicles and equipment, to parts of the town budget that are still put on the shoulders of residents in the incorporated villages. In recent years, Ms. Throne-Holst and the Town Board have taken steps to shift many such costs away from capital budgets that rely on bonding and into departmental operating budgets to save on debt payments.

The supervisor would not say whether she thought the loss of Sagaponack’s police fund tax revenues would demand that the town lay off officers or reduce further Town Police staffing levels. “There are some things we can look at, like re-capitalizing vehicles, with the assumption that those public safety needs are townwide because you will travel outside of your village at some point,” she said. “Staffing levels are a difficult segment already—we’d have to look closely at that as well.”

Village officials have said that they are loath to form their own police department and would prefer to stay under the town blanket—but that they want better coverage and are limited in their ability to negotiate a solution. Mayor Donald Louchheim has said that the town has been largely unwilling to make concessions as the village has inched toward action.

“What we want is better police coverage for our village,” said Mr. Louchheim, the former publisher of The Press. “We would like an officer on duty in the village, especially from 8 a.m. to midnight. There are nuisances and safety issues we want coverage for. Just last week, the policeman who was on duty responded to a call of a woman who had collapsed, and he responded immediately and saved her life.”

Ms. Throne-Holst said that in a meeting late last week, town officials offered to extend the 8 a.m.-to-midnight patrols in the village from just the summer months to year-round. But she also said that village officials’ demands for more coverage on their quiet streets is significantly short-sighted regarding what the Town Police does.

“Their police protection is not just a matter of whether there is a cop patrolling in a cop car on their streets at a given hour,” she said. “I would think they realize it’s important to think of the degree to which the police protection we provide outside the boundaries of the village affects what happens in the village. If we are fighting crime and drug dealing outside of Sagaponack, that impacts what happens in the village also.”

Saturday morning’s meeting in Sagaponack will be the second such gathering intended to elicit input from residents about the proposal to form a police force. At the first meeting, residents were largely split about whether to proceed in search of savings and more comprehensive police presence, or drop the idea for fear of ballooning bureaucracy and unexpected costs down the road.

Mayor Louchheim said at the first meeting, in August, that the board wanted a sense that there was clear, broad support from its residents for the formation of a department before it proceeded. This week, he said he feels there has been broad support for the village taking some action to improve its police coverage, in some form.

“This will be the second community meeting … how many are we supposed to have?” the mayor asked. “As elected officials, it is our decision, not the community’s. I don’t want to split the community, and I don’t want to do something that a majority of people don’t want us to do. But, on the other hand, people have got to articulate to us some good reasons why we shouldn’t do it.”

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