Republican View: Shared services for police, sheriff ill advised

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Over the past few months, I’ve come out strongly against a plan to combine the Ithaca Police Department and the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department into one location. The recent study chose a location on Commercial Avenue in part because there is room for a future new jail. The plan has many flaws from the site chosen, to the idea of yoking the county Sheriff’s Department to the city police force forever.

The site on Commercial Avenue where Harbor Freight is today is renowned for its poor soils. I believe at a high estimate of $24 million, the recent study underestimates the cost of building on that site because of the challenging soils and does not account for the added costs of security measures that go with a sheriff’s office or police station. Also, while the study says there’s room for a new jail on this site, it doesn’t take into consideration the difficulty in building a secure facility like a jail there or for the political pushback that the county will receive with this proposition. We can’t have another building sinking into the former Ithaca marsh.

We had estimates for a new jail at more than $40 million. Is this a $24 million project or a $64 million project? These are low estimates in either case.

There’s no doubt the jail needs upgrades. It’s been suggested that the road patrol move to a new building on the same site it’s on now, freeing up space in the jail for programs and for better medical facilities, and that it can be done much cheaper than this co-location plan. From this study, it looks like the county will bear the lion’s share of the cost of building a new facility in the city limits.

How do I explain that to my constituents?

Besides the challenges of building on that site, it’s also a poor choice considering the growth in the county. The growth in the county is in the Northeast, and from all the plans I see, that and in Ithaca’s core will be where the growth is for the next 20 years. Why move the Sheriff’s Department further away from your nodes of development? Is it wise for Ithaca to move its department away from where it says it wants people to live?

While the goal of protecting and serving is common to both departments, we should recognize that the cultures of the two departments are fundamentally different. The sheriff is chosen by you through an election. While the county sets the department’s budget, the sheriff is in charge of the road patrol and jail.

The city police chief is chosen by the mayor. I believe we’ve kept politics out of the Sheriff’s Department as much as we can, and I hope it stays that way. I, unfortunately, don’t see that at the city level. Maybe I’m not close enough to the situation and I don’t know the inside details of what’s going on, but I do hear often that the officers are under a lot of stress, not just from their time on patrol and investigating, but also from a lack of community support.

Obviously, it’s not the entire community; it’s probably 5%, which I wrote about in another column, but it’s a loud 5% that seems to weigh on the officers. I may get pushback that says that’s not the case, and if so, I welcome it, as I do hope to be wrong.

This should not be read as me being against shared services. The county has been considering building new office space in downtown Ithaca. Would it be cheaper to move to a virgin building lot? Sure, but we’d like to keep those services close to the most people. Why, though, aren’t we talking about co-locating some city services with the county where there’s overlap?

City Hall is a very dated building. The city has a planning department, and so do we; a road department, the county has that department; city clerk, we have a county clerk; city attorney, we have a county attorney and a district attorney, public information and technology, the county has both of those, finance department, yes, the county has that too. You get my point.

Some of these departments, you’ll never see, so why not a shared space? For the ones you do, wouldn’t it make sense to go to one place? There’s no question where you go to challenge your assessment or who’s protecting you from health hazards in the community, as those are county functions at one location. There’s certainly room for the county and city to team on some of these overlapping departments. It will require the release of some control by the city and maybe by the county, but aren’t better services for less money worth the trade-off?

The Democratic View is published in the first edition of each month.

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