Potsdam dissolution would mean changes for police department
Saturday, February 5, 2011 - 8:24 am


POTSDAM – The future of the Potsdam Police Department is likely to be one of the most difficult issues to sort out if village voters decide to dissolve their municipal government.

If village government is abolished, responsibility for government services will fall largely on the town government.

“It looks like the police will be a major issue,” said Tim Connolly, who is chairing the village Dissolution Committee.

The ad hoc body is gathering information to present to the Board of Trustees in preparation for a decision on whether to put the question of dissolving the village up for a vote in November. That research, aided by a Rochester consulting firm, will form the basis of the committee’s recommendations to the board.

The Potsdam Police Department takes up about 40 percent of the village budget, and a little more if benefits for retired officers are included, according to Village Administrator David Fenton, who formerly served as village treasurer.

Three Possible Scenarios

Connelly says the Dissolution Committee’s police subcommittee has identified two clear options and one long-shot solution for the department if the village is dissolved:

• The police force could be expanded to include coverage for the town.

• The existing department could be disbanded and the town could contract with the St. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office for coverage of the whole town. After an informal inquiry, Connolly said state police indicated they were not interested in such a contract.

• A police district could be created, perhaps serving what is now the village, but according to Sean Maguire of the New York Department of State, the move would require action by the state Legislature; such a move hasn’t been addressed in the state since 1934.

More Manpower Needed?

The number of police employees, standing now at 14 officers and four dispatchers, would almost certainly go up if the department is to cover the extra area of the township, according to Chief Ed Tischler.

“We would probably have to increase manpower if we were to provide the same coverage and services,” Tischler said. “If we were to become the town police, we would be responding to any call throughout the town.”

“There’s very little village police activity outside the village now,” said Fenton.

Fenton says in the case of a life-threatening occurrence outside village limits, village police now “would respond to a serious incident outside the village and then turn it over to someone else.”

Chief Tischler said his officers now respond outside the village “if we’re called for assistance and it’s not too far,” and if there are officers available, “if it’s serious, and the state police or sheriffs ask.”

“We’ll respond to anything in the village” from animal rescue to serious crime, the chief said. “We respond to calls for the rescue squad, and we’re usually the first on the scene, especially at night.”

Without the extra manpower and budget, Tischler says some services they now provide, such as fingerprinting and records searches, would probably be lost.

Town Would Pay More

If the village is dissolved, town residents living outside the village will most likely be asked to help pay for police services they now receive for free.

Many of the circumstances in which those town citizens now interact with police or depend on them for security are likely to take place within what is now the village.

For example:

• Police response to car accidents, fights, bad check charges filed by businesses or requests for security assistance at Potsdam schools or public events.

• Maintenance of a police force much larger than it would otherwise be because of demand created by the approximately 7,000 students attending SUNY Potsdam and Clarkson University, the town’s major employers.

• Faster response time to life-threatening incidents such as attempted murder or assault; while village police rarely go beyond village limits, they will respond if requested until county sheriff’s deputies or state police arrive.

• Maintaining “order” by patrolling streets for motor vehicle infractions and disorderly conduct violations.

Dissolution Committee’s Progress

The Rochester consultants assisting the Dissolution Committee, the Center for Governmental Research, has set up web pages dedicated to the Potsdam study at www.cgr.org/potsdam.

Village Trustee Steve Yurgartis has a comprehensive compilation of information on dissolution studies elsewhere in the state and other useful information at www.yurgartis.net/dissolution.htm.

Meetings of the Dissolution Committee are generally at 6 p.m. on the second Wednesday of the month in the Civic Center community room. The public, Connelly says, is encouraged to attend.

“The ‘what exists’ report will be ready by the end of March, and then we move on to taking that information and seeing how to fit it together most efficiently to make as little of a burden on village and town residents as possible” if the village is to be dissolved, Connolly said.

All of the committee’s meetings are open to the public with time for comment by citizens, and official hearings will be held in spring and summer to give the committee guidance.

“We want to make realistic, understandable recommendations,” Connolly said.

Those recommendations – not about whether or not the village should be dissolved, but about the things that have to be taken care of if it is – will be compiled by the beginning of the summer, Connolly said.

“If it’s all done incorrectly – just close the doors and ‘Here’s the keys’ – it would be disastrous for everybody in the village and outside.”

It is a painstaking job and involves mountains of data. The subcommittees are sorting through the village and town codes looking for differences that would have to be resolved, “things like how a family is defined in the village and town codes for housing concerns,” as well as accounts of village debt that would still have to be paid, crime reporting data, labor contracts, and much, much more, Connolly said.

If the dissolution takes place, issues to be decided include how many people to keep to run government functions, equipment requirements and boundaries for road, water and sewer and other infrastructure maintenance, how many justices to have, how many administrative people to keep, how zoning will change, and taxation for all of it.