EDITORIAL: It isn’t the end of Chatham

WHERE DO YOU START to cut a town or village budget? Some get creative, like Ancram’s highway superintendent, who purchased used trucks instead of new. Those innovative approaches yield short-term results and postpone the inevitable. But when most organizations–governmental or private–confront the need for long-term reductions, they almost always focus on reducing staff.

That’s what Copake did last year when it disbanded its town Police Department. It’s what the Village of Chatham did in a far less drastic manner a few weeks ago, when the mayor eliminated a Sunday shift of the village police.

The police weren’t the first place the boards in Copake and Chatham looked for savings. Chatham reduced other departments in the small village workforce until it became clear the Police Department was the only place left to cut and still keep the water running and the streets plowed. The cuts so far have been modest by any measure–a total of 250 hours a year from a full-time department. Yet that has not placated some village residents and police partisans, who consider any cuts an immediate threat to public safety.

The thrust of the argument against police cuts rests on the assumption that other police agencies in the county, the sheriff’s deputies and state troopers, can’t provide an acceptable level of police protection. Some Chatham critics have sought to raise the stakes, asserting that small reductions in the force expose a plan to eliminate the village department… and let loose lawlessness in the streets?

That attitude doesn’t show much respect for deputies and troopers. The Sheriff’s Office has a policy of stationing “resident deputies” in towns. These highly trained and respected deputies get to know the towns and the trouble spots. The troopers, who have barracks in Livingston and New Lebanon and a substation in Kinderhook and are arguably the most highly trained police in the state, cover the whole county in a systematic manner.

Time matters in any kind of emergency, and odds are Chatham Police will reach the scene of an incident in the village before other police agencies. For a crime in progress that could be critical. If it’s an accident or health emergency, all police have first responder training, but the people you really want to see walking through the door are members of the Chatham Rescue Squad, and the squad has its headquarters in the village.

But let’s go back to crimes for a moment. If Sunday is a high crime time in Chatham, the Sheriff’s Office and the State Police must already know that and are capable of addressing the problem. And if Sunday isn’t the issue, what is?

It makes sense that people want a large, well trained and well equipped local police directly answerable to the community. But that’s fast becoming a luxury for rural communities with a small tax base and no growth in sight that would ease the burden on taxpayers who have to pay for this service.

Critics of police budget cuts say the suggestion that we can’t afford all the police we have smacks of elitism. But it’s not elitist to acknowledge that middle-class and fixed-income taxpayers can’t live in Chatham if the village doesn’t rein in its costs. It’s a fact.

Maybe those who fault the mayor’s cuts have a different set of facts that the rest of us haven’t seen. It would be instructive, for instance, to know how much crime is reported on average at different times on different days and whether there’s a pattern. Maybe there’s a better day of the week to temporarily hand off coverage to county and state law enforcement. Has crime increased in Copake and other communities that reduced hours, eliminated their police departments or never had them at all? What’s the difference in response time between the village police and other police agencies?

The critics probably do have a point when they say that this slight reduction in police hours warns of bigger cuts to come. But it’s not a plot to rid the village of its police. The real story is that without these cuts Chatham would move that much closer to insolvency and the end of the village as a distinct political unit with its own services, including police. What the Mayor Curran and the board have done is to buy the village more time maintain its unique identity as a community. All the residents of Chatham should be grateful for that.








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