It appears that there is a strong possibility that voters in the Town of Lewiston will have to chose more than two new board members in the upcoming November election. Lewiston resident Ron Craft has been circulating a petition that over five-hundred voters have signed to date that should force a referendum on the issue of local policing.
The petition calls for the consolidation of the Lewiston Police Department and the Niagara County Sheriff's Department. Craft cites both the $1.5 million dollars in annual costs to maintain a separate police department and points out that on any given day there are five separate law enforcement agencies patrolling Lewiston.
He says the move will save the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
Craft has contended he has no issue with the LPD, but it is just a matter of saving money. But no one seems to know how much it will save or how important it may be to town finances. Depending on who you talk to, you can get all types of assessments on the town's finances. But there is no doubt that Lewiston was in far better financial condition four years ago than it is today.
It may have been public statements on finance by Town Supervisor Dennis Brochey and his finance director, accountant, Paul Kloosterman that helped the issue gain support.
On multiple occasions they said that "Lewiston is $500,000 short this year."
That Lewiston had a half-million dollar budget gap to close this year may have led Craft to try to find a way to cut costs and convinced over five-hundred registered voters to sign his petitions.
Both sides appear to have merit to their arguments.
Logging on to the LPD face-book page you will see people posting that want to picket Craft's home and run him out of town. Some calmer citizens simply want things to continue as they have for years and keep a police department they know well and are comfortable with.
Others are afraid of the possibility of having to pay a town tax. That subject has been brought up in public several times too.
This isn't the first time the topic of police consolidation has come up.
Four years ago the Town Board considered it. They obtained a cost from the Sheriff's Department that a former board member said would have saved a substantial amount of money. The existing full-time officers would have been absorbed into that department with no loss of seniority, pay or benefits. But both political pressure and the fact that the there would be no guarantee the same officers would be assigned to Lewiston killed the deal.
Brochey said he supports keeping a local police department but that the decision should rest with the people.
A valid argument for keeping the police can be made. There is a comfort level between the department members and the public that is undeniable. They are all Lewiston residents who are familiar with local problems and local residents. In addition to their families and friends a number of average taxpayers support their retention too. Niagara County Sherriff James Voutour has been quoted as saying he "supports the Lewiston Police Department."
The police, of course, argue that public safety will be compromised if there is not a local police department. They say the department is almost fully funded by the fines the town gains through the court system and despite the area being covered by other police agencies they are worth whatever cost there may be.
Craft for his part is saying that hundreds of thousands of dollars will be saved each year with no loss of service. He contends that the state police and Sherriff's Department are more than capable of providing the same coverage and service to residents.
Having an informed electorate is critical to allowing people to make a sound decision. To make a good decision about costs versus service people will need all of the facts.
To date, Craft has not been able to provide the public with any firm idea of potential cost savings. He says he has been stymied by the town's lack of transparency and is ready to FOIL all records related to police expenditures.
Others have looked quizzically at the blanket statement by the Sherriff. Of course he supports the Lewiston Police. I can't think of any police agency in Niagara county that he would he not wish to publically support. But the other things he has or has not said are of critical importance.
The Sherriff did not say his department was unable or unwilling to provide Lewiston with the same level of police protection and public safety it currently enjoys. He did say on the record that no one from the town government approached him on the issue. You would think that a town searching for ways to cut costs would at least approach the Sherriff or County Legislators to find out if there are potential savings.
There is no right or wrong choice. Some people simply want to have a local police department for the town despite the cost. To them their perceived benefit is all that matters. Many others have said that as long as the level of public safety isn't really affected they want to eliminate any extra expense for police services.
The people should decide, but the town's elected officials should be doing their part too. They are entitled to their own opinion on the matter, but more importantly they owe it to the taxpayers to explore the option of consolidation.
Only doing so will make it possible for them to provide residents with both facts and figures that will help them make their choice.
Now it is up to both sides to present the facts and figures to the electorate and let them decide what course they town will take.