By JOE LoTEMPLIO and DAN HEATH, Press-Republican
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Police Chief Desmond Racicot is constantly aware that fiscal eyes are upon him, wondering if cuts could be made to the City of Plattsburgh’s biggest department.
Racicot said they try hard to keep costs down in the $6.8 million budget, but the only real way to induce major savings would be to cut bodies.
“Most of our budget is set, and the only way to cut is to look at payroll, and that’s really difficult,” he said.
With 45 full-time officers now and another five new hires on the way, every person serves a vital purpose in keeping the city safe, Racicot says. To reduce staffing, he feels, would put safety at risk.
“We are constantly doing something, and, believe me, there is always something that needs to be done.
“It’s not just the calls we go to. It’s the followups and paperwork and court appearances that have to be done afterward. We don’t just go to a call and then leave and that’s it.”
The chief believes that eliminating positions could have a serious impact on crime in the city.
“Once crime starts to deteriorate in a city, it’s so hard to get back the quality of life you had,” he said.
“That’s why we are always trying to be preventive.”
Racicot said that with its proximity to the U.S./Canadian border, Plattsburgh is ripe for more crime traveling through the corridor from Montreal to New York City.
“We have seen a significant increase in drug overdoses, meth use, heroin use ... unfortunately, there is an unreasonable amount of drug users and abusers in this area, and crime does not know any corporate boundaries,” he said.
Plattsburgh Common Council Councilor James Calnon, who serves as the council’s budget officer, said he doesn’t favor cutting Police Department staff.
The public has made it clear to him, he said, that safety is a top priority.
“We’ve seen a rise in a certain kind of crimes and responding to that is extremely important to us,” he said. “Law enforcement is one of the most critical services at public expense.”
Cutting equipment and vehicles probably wouldn’t work, either, he said.
“You can’t cut vehicles and have cops sitting at the station doing nothing.”
In addition to providing law-enforcement officers, the Police Department budget also includes the city’s information-technology systems.
In 2006, through federal grants, the department was able to obtain the necessary infrastructure to link the entire city.
It hired an IT specialist to oversee the system, and that person helps all city departments.
“We had police officers doing IT stuff, and they really are not qualified to do that, and every (city) department had a different system,” Racicot said.
“We were able to get everybody together on the same page, which is a huge plus for the city.”
To keep costs down, Racicot, who has been chief since 2003, has made several changes.
He eliminated several specialized details, including the Youth, DWI and Traffic divisions, within the force and spread that work out to all officers.
He also eliminated one typist position in the department.
The department recycles all vehicles and a lot of equipment and furniture, giving it to other departments when they are done with it.
A grant was won to install a geo-thermal heating system in the Police Station on Pine Street, which saves the department between 20 and 30 percent a year on heating costs.
The department also obtained a sophisticated system that allows officers to take a full scan of an accident scene, automatically inputting all measurements and angles of a crash to come up with a complete diagram in a matter of minutes.
“We used to have to stand out there in all kinds of weather for hours doing these measurements, and that can cost a lot,” he said.
In 2008, the Common Council opted to reduce the number of parking-enforcement officers from two full-timers to one part-timer.
All city officers were asked to also write tickets after the change, but the move caused a slight decrease in revenue — money that is funneled to the city’s general fund.
Revenue fell from $264,629 in 2007 to $245,592 in 2010 then climbed up some to $251,808 last year.
Racicot says the number of parking-enforcement officers is ultimately a Common Council decision, not his.
“We are not in business to generate revenue. Our job is to provide public safety. If revenue occurs, that’s a benefit. You can get in trouble if you have quotas and things like to make money. It is not ethical, and it is inappropriate.”
That said, Racicot mentioned that the department is exploring the idea of implementing an electronic parking-meter system downtown, which could increase revenue.
The system would require all city parking spaces to be numbered, and the motorist would walk to a centralized box and put money into the machine for a specific parking space.
Calnon said parking enforcement has been an age-old issue in Plattsburgh. The challenge is to find the right balance between expense, revenue and enforcement.
“We certainly have our downtown business community that is not shy about sharing their feelings about that,” he said.
“But I believe we have the right mix now.”
Implementing more parking-enforcement officers or an automated system can be costly, Calnon noted.
“Obviously, with anything like that, there is an initial investment, and I’m not sure it will produce enough revenue to make it worth it.”
Mayor Donald Kasprzak told the Press-Republican that he is confident there is a possibility of cost-savings measures through consolidating some duties with the New York State Police or Clinton County Sheriff’s Department.
“Due to the ever-increasing economic challenges the entire state is facing, it is my belief all communities are going to have to sit down to discuss combining or sharing services with other law-enforcement agencies,” he said.
There is no question the majority of all city departments’ costs are related to salaries, health care and retirement.
The mayor said that leaves a real possibility that any additional budget reductions may include personnel reductions — except at the Fire Department, due to its minimum-staffing clause.
“The concern I have with any reductions in personnel is it could result in fewer services,” the mayor said.
Email Joe LoTemplio:
email@example.comTHE COST OF SAFETY This is the last in a series of articles looking at the budgets for Plattsburgh Fire and Police departments and proposals for change.