Top-ranking officers with the Bath Police Department are speaking out against looming cuts to the police force, saying they're already undermanned in a village plagued by drug-related crime.
Top-ranking officers with the Bath Police Department are speaking out against looming cuts to the police force, saying they’re already undermanned in a village plagued by drug-related crime.
The village is considering cutting two full-time positions from the police force due to a tight budget and spiraling property taxes, said Bath Mayor Bill von Hagn.
The trustees plan to discuss the matter at the next village board meeting, set for 5:30 p.m. Aug. 18 at Bath Village Hall.
Like many other municipalities, Bath has been under a budget squeeze since the recession, with rising costs and limited revenue.
One of the biggest problems for Bath, von Hagn said, is that 53 percent of the properties in the village are tax-exempt, including schools, churches, non-profit organizations and Steuben County government buildings. That places the burden on homeowners.
Property taxes in the village have increased 29 percent over the past five years, despite trustees pulling roughly $500,000 from the fund balance over that span to keep tax hikes down. If reserves hadn’t been tapped, taxes would have increased 105 percent over five years, von Hagn said.
“We’re on an unsustainable trajectory,” he said.
The village board has already trimmed spending significantly in recent years, and there aren’t many places left to cut from, von Hagn said. And Bath residents can’t keep shouldering hefty tax increases, he added.
“There has to be a balance between cost and what village residents can afford,” von Hagn said. “It’s terrible to be in this position.”
But Bath Police Chief Dave Rouse said the village has already lost four full-time positions over the past few years through attrition - an investigator, two dispatchers and a school resource officer.
There’s now 12 full-time employees in the police department: the chief, an investigator, four sergeants, and four officers. That means there’s only two officers on patrol at a time, Rouse said.
The force does have seven part-time officers, but they fill in when the regulars are on leave, and don’t supplement regular shifts, Rouse said.
Rouse, who has served as chief for 18 years, says he reluctantly agreed to staffing reductions through attrition in the past, but says he’s “adamantly opposed” to more cuts.
“My gosh, last month we had a shooting with two drug dealers that were vying over taking up free enterprise in the village - drug dealers out of Rochester,” Rouse added. “And that resulted in one being shot in the chest and the head.”
“If we start making further reductions in the police department, I’m very much concerned about the impact it’s going to have on the quality of life in the Village of Bath,” he added.
Sgt. Colin Taft, who is president of the Bath Police Benevolent Association - the police department’s union - agreed.
“All of our crime is centered around the drug war here that we have going on, where all the crime is being committed to purchase drugs,” Taft said. “We’ve got a lot of dangerous people coming down here.”
Taft says local police departments are most effective at combating those problems, because the county sheriff’s office and state police have to cover such a wide area.
“We’re the ones on the ground level,” Taft said, citing his department’s regular downtown foot patrols. “We have the intelligence, we’re the ones that work with the community.”
Taft said the PBA has done its own audit of the village’s finances, and he’s confident the village can find a way to avert the cuts, especially since several employees in the police department plan to retire next year.
He and von Hagn have very different interpretations of the village’s financial situation, however - in particular, the status of the fund balance, which is tied to loans made to the village’s utility, Bath Electric, Gas and Water Systems.
One thing everybody agreed on: They want public feedback on the matter.
“We welcome input,” von Hagn said. “We’re trying to be very open about this.”
“I would hope the public would be concerned as hell over this, and would be very vocal about it,” Rouse said. “If the public determines that they want less policing in the village, then so be it.”