Small-town officials, burdened by tight budgets and rising costs, are weighing the likely impact of consolidating their police forces.
Last year, the Town of Ossining dropped its 17-member force and outsourced its patrols to Westchester County, at a savings of $600,000.
Now, two other county villages -- Pleasantville and Mount Kisco -- are considering the value of spending a chunk of their budgets on local departments when Westchester County could police their tree-lined streets for less.
"It's something we have to look at," said Mount Kisco Mayor Michael Cindrich, himself a retired police officer. "A police department costs a lot of money. At more than $6 million (annually), it pushes close to a third of our budget." Mount Kisco has about 35 police personnel, the mayor said.
Pleasantville spends about a third of its $12 million yearly budget on its 23-member force, said Mayor Peter Scherer. And he sees that tab rising as the cost of benefits skyrockets as the state imposes a 2 percent cap on property tax hikes -- all while weathering a sluggish economy.
"It's driven everybody into the circumstance where we need to try to save money even to maintain the current taxing level," said Scherer, whose village, like Mount Kisco, awaits county studies on the feasibility of contracting police services from the county rather than maintaining its own department.
The president of the police union that represents the police benevolent associations of Mount Kisco and Pleasantville said if those villages want to abolish their police departments, they should put it to public referendums -- as mandated by state law.
"If the public says this is what they want to do, you have no issue with the public because they pay the freight," said Anthony Solfaro, president of the New York State Union of Police Associations. "But do it properly and let the public decide."
He said Ossining eliminated the need for public input by transferring services in its contract with the county and not outright abolishing its police department. He noted, however, that whatever savings Ossining might be reaping now could disappear in the next contract.
All 17 officers and commanders in the Ossining Town Police Department were hired by the Westchester County police, Solfaro said, so no jobs were lost. The 17 new hires filled slots that were vacant, said Kieran O'Leary, a spokesman for the Westchester County Police Department, and no new positions were created.
'Optimizing a model'
A spokesman for Astorino called consolidation efforts "optimizing a business model.
"There are certain things that the county can do and some things that towns and villages can," said Ned McCormack, a senior adviser to Astorino. "Where you have overlaps is where you're looking to unwind that."
Last year the county introduced 22 new shared-services programs for Westchester's 45 municipalities, including areas such as information technology, purchasing, and emergency planning. McCormack did not have a figure on what the potential savings to taxpayers might be.
More than a quarter of elected county officials nationwide said they had consolidated law enforcement services with another county, according to a 2011 U.S. Justice Department report, which did not provide a statewide breakdown.
Former Ossining Town Supervisor Catherine Borgia, under whose watch the town merged its law enforcement with the county, said that the community had been paying $940 per police call.
"It was never an issue of performance. Our officers were excellent. But it was more expensive than the crime statistics warranted," she said.
The town is made up of two villages -- Ossining and Briarcliff Manor -- and each has its own department. The unincorporated town has fewer than 6,000 residents within its three square miles.
By outsourcing police services, the town saved more than $600,000 last year and could see savings approach $800,000 a year by the end of the four-year contract, she estimated.
The cost is tax-neutral to the rest of the county because the town is paying for the services it needs, she said. The town pays salaries, benefits and pension costs for the officers the county assigns to the town under the contract.
The county is not looking to take over small departments, O'Leary asserted. And a central factor in considering any mergers is that it not involve shifting tax burdens from one group of residents to the county as a whole.
"The county is not looking to make money on it, but we also have to be sure we reflect the full and complete cost so that people in other communities that are maintaining police departments aren't also subsidizing police service somewhere else," O'Leary said.
Response times better
The Westchester County Police Department dispatches from its headquarters on Route 9A in Hawthorne, but police cars are stationed at the town police building. Response times, she said, have been the same or better because the larger police department can more easily fill coverage voids caused by officer absences.
Denise Stein, who has lived in the town of Ossining for 32 years, said she's happy with the change. Her county and town tax bill only went up by $12 this year -- lower than the usual $300 or more she had seen in the past.
Most importantly, she hasn't noticed a decline in police service.
"I still see them out there catching speeders in the neighborhood," she said. "I've seen no decrease in service."
"I'm happy for people to learn from our experience," she said. "What might work for one municipality might not work for another."
They all, however, face the same problem: how to provide proper policing while holding down costs.
"We're all in the same boat everybody else is as the cost of providing these services has gotten tremendously expensive -- in part because this is an expensive place to live," Scherer said.
'You're losing something'
Still, the thought of losing the village's own police force concerned George Papanicolaou, 33, whose family has owned Nilsson's Floral Co. in the village for 60 years.
"Growing up here, it was always nice to know the police officer knew you, knew your name," he said. "You're losing something that makes the town the town."
Mount Kisco spends more than $6 million of its roughly $19 million annual budget on policing, said Cindrich, who was a Town of Mamaroneck police officer for 27 years.
The village is waiting for the county to finish a study that would put a price tag on county policing, including permanent police posts, not random patrols. The idea, he said, is to provide the same level of policing at a significant savings. Cindrich has heard figures as high as $1 million in potential savings.
"It looks like something that may be workable and provide the necessary services to the community," he said.
Like Cindrich, Daniel Guillemi wants to see dollar figures before deciding to change police services.
"I like knowing the cops we have here," he said as he stood outside his grocery store Newport Market across the street from the Mount Kisco train station. "We don't have enough information yet. We need to know how much we would save, then decide if it's worth it to change."