By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Sullivan County legislators are split on the idea but seem headed toward agreeing to a controversial law enforcement review panel.
“We owe it to ourselves,” said Legislator Cora Edwards, chair of the Public Safety Committee. “I don’t think we’d be doing our job if we didn’t do it.”
The concept was unanimously approved by that committee on Thursday, with legislators Edwards, Gene Benson, Kathy LaBuda and Alan Sorensen in agreement and Ira Steingart absent.
It now goes before the full Legislature for an official vote on Thursday, August 16 (4:30 p.m. at the Government Center in Monticello).
In the form presented this past Thursday what was termed a “fifth draft,” subject to further revision the resolution calls for a nine-member volunteer panel to review all of the law enforcement services and agencies throughout the county (including state, town and village resources).
Specifically, the panel would determine the total costs of such services, “analyze the fiscal prudence” of providing county-level services, identify areas of potential waste and duplication, and offer recommendations to the Legislature by October 15 on how many of these services should be offered at the county level.
The resolution twice states a goal “of maintaining and increasing the services of the New York State Police.”
That led Kyle Muthig, president of the Sullivan County PBA (the Sheriff’s deputies’ union), to wonder why there wasn’t a twin goal to do the same for the Sheriff’s Office.
“I can read between the lines and see that it means cuts and layoffs,” he remarked.
Sheriff Michael Schiff also expressed concern, saying he had a letter from the State Police indicating the county is not in line for an increase in troopers.
“In my opinion, this is just another layer of government,” he observed, arguing that the legislators themselves should be undertaking this review.
He indicated the panel might be politically motivated and warned that public safety could be “adversely affected.”
Also opposed is the Sullivan County Supervisors Association, where 12 of the 15 town supervisors approved their own resolution against the panel idea.
“The existing committee system already provides for opportunities for experts to be invited to speak, for outside opinions to be solicited and for the receipt of cost-savings measures of any sort to be shared,” reads the resolution. “... We believe that an extra bureaucratic level is both unnecessary and counterproductive.”
“We know cuts have to be made,” Callicoon Supervisor Tom Bose told legislators, “but we’d appreciate the inclusion of the supervisors, Sheriff and Undersheriff.”
That later generated a rebuke from Legislator Gene Benson.
“We don’t tell you how to run your towns,” he said. “Please don’t tell us how to run the Legislature.”
Worried that law enforcement costs will simply be passed on to them, however, several town and village boards have also come out against the panel concept, including the townships of Bethel and Mamakating and the Village of Liberty.
But not all public officials are opposed.
“I do think we need a commission to watchdog law enforcement,” Monticello Mayor Gordon Jenkins told legislators Thursday. “Most law enforcement is pretty good, but there are some who are vicious and are playing political head games.”
Jenkins considered his village’s own controversial police commission as an example of demanding accountability.
“If you’re not doing something wrong,” he asked rhetorically, “... why should you be afraid [of the commission]?”
Other speakers agreed, even though the county panel is ostensibly solely concerned with fiscal accountability, not matters of civil rights, due process, police behavior and the like.
A variety of panel proponents urged the Legislature to expand its purview.
Grahamsville resident Ken Walter, for example, asked legislators to also include the New York City Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) Police, who patrol the city’s watershed in the county’s northern reaches.
“I think when we get all done with it, we’ll find we have the cheapest police service in Sullivan County,” he predicted.
Nevertheless, Walter also suggested adding a dollar fee to every event admission ticket in Sullivan County, with the proceeds split between the Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office.
Teamsters union representative Sandy Shaddock agreed with the panel idea but felt it should not be limited to just one county department.
“There needs to be a forensic audit of every single department in this county,” she stressed.
Monticello resident Tom Manza agreed.
“Every area of government has to be scrutinized,” he stated, praising the Legislature for tackling such a hot-button issue.
Legislators promised that will happen.
“It is absolutely our responsibility to review every aspect of every budget,” agreed Legislator Cindy Gieger. “I’ll also be proposing a review panel to look at Social Services.”
Legislator Alan Sorensen felt, like Shaddock, that a paid expert consultant should do these reviews otherwise, “I don’t think it’s going to be something I’ll feel comfortable with.”
As for fears that the Sheriff’s Office might face deep cuts, no legislator ruled it out, though Benson said the goal is to improve county services.
“We hope you’ll put up with us a while so we can do it,” he concluded.