A month ago, council members, while discussing the proposed new police station, said the last thing they wanted to do was "kick the can down the road."
Monday, after hearing from a half dozen public speakers who had nothing good to say about the proposal, the sound of tin rattling on pavement could be heard quite distinctly in City Hall.
"I'm suggesting that we put a task force together to see if it is possible for a merger or consolidation between the police department and the sheriff's," said Council President Brooks Hawley. "Before we can move forward with spending any money at all, we need to do our due diligence before we spend taxpayers' money."
We've been down this road before, and it got the city nowhere, said Councilman Eugene Jankowski, a former Batavia police officer.
"I've been involved in several projects where the Police Department and Sheriff's Office were going to merge and unfortunately for the Sheriff, the city caused so many delays that the Sheriff was delayed in building (a new building) at least five years, maybe longer," Jankowski said. "Every time the project came up, someone suggested merger and that would scare everyone off, things would go away. To get things done, the Sheriff, who was waiting and waiting, finally out of frustration, he couldn't wait any longer, he had his new building built.
"There were many opportunities for this to happen and it was passed by for whatever reason," Jankowski added.
Then Jankowski endorsed the idea of a feasibility study being completed on a possible merger of departments.
Most of the anti-police-station speakers called for a merger or elimination of the city police force.
"Spending $10 to $14 million on a new police station is an awful waste of money," said Peter Garlock, who served on the police facilities task force that met more than a dozen times over a seven-month period and came up with the recommendation for a new police station on Swan Street.
Dave Olsen, president of the Genesee County Libertarian Party (top photo), suggested the city's law enforcement needs could be met through private security, volunteers in homeowners and business associations and citizens with the legal right to carry firearms.
"More government means more taxation and it makes citizens less free by taking a portion of their income and choice away," Olsen said.
While under current circumstances (which delays could change), it's likely the new police station could be built without the city increasing its current debt load or raising taxes (see the financing memo in the council's Oct. 26 agenda (pdf), several speakers objected to the proposal based on assumptions of increased debt and higher taxes.
- Bob Bialkowski: "Batavia is a community of low, low middle-income families. We do not want to be saddled with any more debt."
- Jim Rosenbeck: "We should also ask how building a new police station impacts the taxes on our aging and declining population? What are the tax implications for our local downtown businesses, some of which are struggling?"
- Rosenbeck: "I sympathize with the police who find their current home is aging and deteriorating. We would all probably like a new home, but often we can't afford it. We have to live within our means. We can't get everything on our wish list. I ask that you be responsible with our tax dollars."
- Daniel DelPlato: "Taxes, you've got to keep them down. There are people on fixed incomes. We all know the prices of everything is going up. You've got to think about the senior citizens, even though there are not a lot of them here, you've got to represent them, too."
In contrast, David Lone (bottom photo), who served on the police facilities task force, said the council should consider the cost of kicking the can down the road.
"Interest on borrowing rates are right now at historic lows," Lone said. "That's one factor the council should take into consideration. If the decision is postponed for five or 10 years, interest rates may go up two, three, four times what they are now. On a 20-year bond, you're talking of adding hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to the whole project by not taking full advantage of these historic low rates that are available."
While the council waits on a study -- which it didn't even explicitly authorize Monday night -- city staff is unable to move forward on the project. Purchase of the land can't be negotiated, which leaves it vulnerable to purchase by a commercial interest; nor can environmental studies be conducted to ensure it should be purchased or what it might cost to remediate; design work can't begin and financing can't get locked in. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve is looking at the first interest rate hike in nearly a decade when it meets in December.
Not all the speakers were against building a new police station on Swan Street. Local businesswoman Diane Kastenbaum endorsed the idea.
"We do need a new station and the time to move on it is now," said Kastenbaum, who said she's recently added 10 employees to her company's workforce and plans to hire more. "Our population is not in decline. I see signs of hope, signs of growth, and I think there will be more of a demand for a state-of-the-art police station in our community."
There was some talk of exploring shared services with the Sheriff's Office to eliminate duplicate work and reduce costs and perhaps eliminate the need for a new police station.
Rosenbeck noted that city property owners pay for both the Batavia PD, through city taxes, and the Sheriff's Office, through county taxes.
"One good question we should be asking -- what are we currently getting from the county in return for our funding the city police and the county sheriff's services," Rosenbeck said. "Are there ways we can get greater value from a city-county partnership, with smart sharing of costs, services and possible facilities?"
Jankowski had the answer:
- The city's inmates are housed in the county's jail at no charge to the city;
- Arrestees are photographed and booked by jail staff, so city patrols get back on the road quicker;
- Deputies transport the city's inmates to and from the courthouse at no charge to the city;
- The Sheriff's Office handles all dispatch for police, fire and DPW, saving the city $100,000 a year, as well as providing the radio system and patrol computer system along with technical support;
- Deputies provide security for City Court;
- The county pays for all medical treatment for the city's inmates.
In addition, Jankowski said, the Sheriff is very generous with Homeland Security grants. The Sheriff's Office purchased the city's ERT vehicle, trains the ERT team, provides it with body armor and provides a third of the personnel in the ERT team. The Sheriff's Office also manages the drug task force.
"How much more can we dump on the Sheriff?" Jankowski said. "He's pretty much already doing everything for us except patrol. At some point, the city has to take responsibility and patrol it's own backyard."
John Roach noted that any discussion of shared services really just means elimination of the police department, and that's the central question the council needs to answer. Is it willing to eliminate Batavia PD? If not, then move on and select Swan Street for the new police station.
It's a better option, he said, than trying to once again renovate the Brisbane Mansion.
"Building new is cheaper," he said.
Councilwoman Patti Pacino is in favor of Swan Street, but said she is willing to go along with a feasibility study if it doesn't cost a lot of money.
"I don't want a study that's just another study that gives us an answer," Pacino said. "If we do a study, fine, but I don't want to pay $30,000 for it. I don't want someone else to come in and look at it. People of Batavia know more about what we want in Batavia than anybody we could get to come in and do a study."
Several council members suggested that the county should pay half the cost of a feasability study.
Reached today, County Manager Jay Gsell said the county would be happy to the help the city in a grant application to the state to fund a study, but the county's budget for 2016 is set.
"I haven't had a discussion with Jason yet about how far they would want to go in terms of further discussion before they start looking at just building a separate and discreet police facility," Gsell said. "The county is open and amenable to having further dialogue and getting real serious about what the future holds for law enforcement in Genesee County. Certainly, we can go to the state to get the funding for further analysis."
Gsell noted, the city and county have been down this road before. There was talk of moving both departments into what is now the court facility, with a third and fourth floor atop the structure we know now, and when the Sheriff's Office built its new facility on Park Road. He understands, he said, the council's desire to do the same due diligence now.
"Whenever you get ready to spend between $10 to $17 million, you don't do that based on thinking not everything has been examined fully, and I think that's all they're looking at doing right now," Gsell said.
Merging departments is a complex consideration said Sheriff Gary Maha. A fully funded study would be necessary to determine potential cost savings, if any, and the impact on both departments.
There's certainly high near-term expense for new uniforms, car decals, equipment and training, Maha said.
Such a feasibility study was undertaken for Jamestown PD and the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office in 2009, and that potential merger is still pending, Maha noted (The state issued a $400,000 grant for the study.)
"It's not a simple issue, but worth looking at if that's want they want to do," Maha said.