By Dan Hust
LIBERTY Village and Town of Liberty board members heard the same thing Thursday: that expanding the village police department to cover the township as well would drop village taxes by around 36 percent yet hike town taxes by about 38 percent.
But evidently the two boards heard different opinions as to the willingness of town residents to foot a bigger bill.
Village Trustee Joan Stoddard and Mayor Richard Winters recalled a recent meeting where the village board was considering deep cuts to the department.
“Well over half the people at that meeting were town residents,” Winters said.
And those people, added Stoddard, were clamoring for the police department to remain fully funded by the village so much so that some said they were willing to help pay for it as town taxpayers.
“That’s why we’re here [tonight],” said Winters.
“In the discussions I’ve had with people in the town since that meeting,” replied Town Board member Lynn Killian, “they are totally opposed to a townwide police department. ... They don’t see what advantage it would be to them.”
Town Board member Tom Hasbrouck concurred, noting that not a single person he spoke with favored sharing costs for the police force with the village.
Thursday’s meeting was set up to discuss the concept between the boards, but while more research and a public hearing are planned, it already seemed the town would not voluntarily add the village police to its expense sheet.
“You’ll never hear me say I don’t think we should have a police force in the village,” acknowledged Town Board member Chris Austin, “... but I don’t think the town needs a police force.”
Village trustees nevertheless continued to argue their case, pointing out that town residents utilize the village police services whilst they’re doing business in the village and while their children are attending Liberty’s schools.
“Everybody gets the benefit,” Stoddard remarked.
“Not everybody feels that way,” Killian replied.
Members of both boards acknowledged that a townwide police force would also have to grow in size by at least three more officers, another dispatcher and one or two more cars, according to Stoddard.
Such an increase was not part of the calculations that Town Financial Services Director Earl Bertsch provided the boards that night. For simplicity’s sake, he only estimated what the current force would cost if expanded beyond village boundaries.
Village residents also pay town taxes, Stoddard pointed out.
“Village people elected you as well,” she told the town board. “We’re all in this together.”
But, said Town Board member Maurice Gerry, town residents are satisfied with the police protection afforded by the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office and the New York State Police, the latter of which has its main county barracks in Liberty.
“Why would we create a townwide police department if the service we have is adequate?” agreed Austin.
“Is it adequate?” Stoddard wondered.
“Yes, it is,” replied Gerry. “I think the Sheriff’s deputies and troopers we have now ... do a tremendous job.”
So do the village police officers, argued Winters, who feared that next year will be even harder on the force fiscally than this year.
“I wouldn’t ask these guys to do again what they did this year,” he said, referring to the cuts made to and by the department. “That’s not fair to them.”
Village officials, in fact, predicted that the Village of Liberty’s days are drawing to an end something not argued by their town counterparts.
“Let’s face the facts: the governor is trying to get rid of villages,” Winters said, noting Governor Andrew Cuomo’s potential two percent property tax increase cap.
“Liberty’s a beautiful place,” added Village Trustee Corinne McGuire, “but I really think people have run for the hills ... because of the taxes.”
“Another problem we have,” said Village Trustee Shirley Lindsley, “is that you [the town] are made whole, and we’re not.”
Thus the village’s outstanding taxes go uncollected, save for costly and time-consuming litigation.
The village’s dissolution, Winters predicted, “is going to happen anyway. Do we want to wait until we shut our doors and go broke?”
Killian agreed the village system is unsustainable but argued that a police district, covering just the village’s boundaries and taxing just village residents, should be considered.
That concept didn’t find support, but other ideas like merging the code enforcement and public works departments, gained a little traction.
“If you do it piece by piece, I think it’s a heck of a lot easier to get it done,” Winters explained.
In the end, the two boards agreed to solicit advice from the Liberty Police Dept., the State Police, the Sheriff’s Office and the Town of Fallsburg PD.
Once that information is in hand, the village and town plan to set a joint public hearing.
“We’d really like a LOT of feedback on it,” Austin said.
What the chief thinks
At Thursday’s meeting, officials debated whether Liberty Police Chief Rob Mir is for or against expanding his department to cover the township.
Mir was away and thus couldn’t speak for himself, but the Democrat caught up with him yesterday morning.
Other than agreeing the force would have to expand to effectively cover the township, Mir reserved comment until he better understands what’s being proposed.
“I have not had any meaningful dialogue with anybody about it,” he explained.