By E.C. Barrett
ITHACA – The new year will bring a new look at whether shared law enforcement services make sense in Tompkins County.
The Tompkins County Legislature, by an 11-3 vote, has agreed to move forward with a study of the opportunities, starting in January 2017. The work will be done by Center for Governmental Research, based in Rochester, assessing the efficiency and efficacy of local law enforcement agencies, and identifying areas of service overlap for potential consolidation with an eye on saving taxpayers money.
“For some time now the county has been working very hard to reduce the amount taxpayers have to pay for all the services we provide, starting with the Health Department, jail and police,” said Tompkins County Legislator Peter Stein, D-Ithaca, who serves as chairperson of the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee. “We have tried to keep the price of providing those services as low as possible while maintaining and improving the quality of services.”
Law enforcement services are a significant portion of local budgets. In 2016, the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office cost around $4.8 million to operate and the City of Ithaca’s Police Department budget for the same time was $11.6 million.
Some of this cost, according to Tompkins County Administrator Joe Mareane, is a result of law enforcement needs and methods shifting over time in ways that created service overlaps and inefficient use of resources.
“If we were to start over, without any police coverage at all, we would probably design an organizational structure that would be a lot more efficient than what has evolved over the history of the county,” he said.
According to Mareane, local law enforcement and legislators have already noted some areas of inefficiencies they hope the study will address.
“Training is a possible area where services can be shared,” he said. “We put a lot of money and effort into training our police employees, maybe there could be a central approach to training because our trainings are so similar.
“Records are another area. Electronics have helped coordinate our records, which used to be a massive undertaking, but maybe there could be a central records office serving all police agencies,” Mareane added. “I’ve also heard talk of a single investigation unit, with patrol being handled by individual departments, but investigations being handled centrally.”
Mareane says CGR will begin the study by meeting with local law enforcement stakeholders, including law enforcement agencies, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Judiciary, to get their thoughts on how the agencies and their services are organized.
“An important part of the study will be two public events where people can come in and talk about what they value within their police agencies, what concerns them about changing, and what they can suggest to make the services better,” said Mareane. “The city council and county felt it was important to recognize the community as stakeholders in law enforcement.”
As the study nears completion, CGR and participating agencies will look at alternative ways of providing services and lay out different options, without recommending any one in particular, presenting the pros and cons of the different options to the county, Common Council and village boards.
According to Ithaca Police Department Public Information Officer Jamie Williamson, there are no pre-ordained outcomes of the study and no services or agencies slotted for the chopping block.
“The shared services study is just a study, it doesn’t mean the services are going to change, it’s just a study of the effectiveness and efficiency of what we do,” he said. “We welcome this evaluation. Certainly saving the taxpayers money is a consideration but it’s not the end all be all, it’s more to evaluate whether we can improve what we do and save money.
“There’s collective bargaining agreements and a lot of details that would need to be ironed out prior to a solution,” Williamson added, “so it won’t happen overnight.”
Mareane acknowledged potential challenges moving forward with shared services efforts.
“I can think of only one kind of consolidation that’s harder than police, and that’s school consolidation,” he said. “Police consolidations are very difficult, people have a loyalty to their police department.
“The residents of the city really value what they’ve been able to achieve with IPD in terms of community policing and they don’t want to lose it,” Mareane added. “It’s heartening that the community has this relationship with the police and it has to be kept central to this discussion that we don’t lose what’s good when we’re looking at ways we can share services.”
The $70,000 study is a joint venture of Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca, and the villages of Cayuga Heights, Dryden and Groton. It is being funded with a $50,000 grant from New York State’s Municipal Restructuring Fund, with the remainder split between contributions from Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca.