New Berlin’s Struggle With Abolishing Local PD Highlights COVID Fiscal Challenges

By: Tyler Murphy

New Berlin’s struggle with abolishing local PD highlights COVID fiscal challenges New Berlin Councilwoman Wendy Rifanburg holds up the New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaboration booklet that contains a new range of expectations by the state for municipalities and police. To the right Councilman John Parks, Supervisor Robert Starr and Councilman Josh Burchill look on. (Photo by Tyler Murphy)

NEW BERLIN – The public hearing asked residents to give feedback to the New Berlin town board about the proposed referendum to defund the New Berlin Police Department. And residents obliged.

Afterwards, in a spilt vote, the board voted to remove the police department from the town’s laws, and then they voted unanimously to hold a public referendum, leaving the final decision to abolish the PD up to town voters.

The public is heard:

“I’ve got a question,” said New Berlin resident and emergency services volunteer Claude Chase at Tuesday’s public hearing.

“We know Chenango County and the whole state right now during this COVID mess, the domestic violence cases are on the rise. Am I right or wrong on that?”

“Yes. They are,” said Town of New Berlin Supervisor Robert Starr.

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“Without these guys being in the neighborhood they’re on the edge waiting on 34 to 45 minutes for a deputy, sometimes up to an hour for a state trooper,” said Chase. “These guys are the eyes and ears for the fire department and the ambulance service. Ever since I’ve been here.”

Starr, “Totally agree.”

“They help us anytime we need it. They help us roll on calls when we have no idea what we are going into,” said Chase.

“And like was said, if all devilry breaks lose, what are we suppose to do? We’ve got no coverage. Are we suppose to take the law into our own hands? Say someone breaks in, say Josh’s house or John’s house (board members) what then?”

Chase asked, “The government says someone breaks into your house – you can’t plug them?”

Starr did not respond.

“And the kids running the street at night? Officer LePlante will tell you about the kids running at night. No one does nothing. At least the (local PD) can take those kids and say ‘hey, look, why aren’t you home?’ That right there, is the whole thing.”

New Berlin officials have warned of an impending COVID-19 fiscal crisis effecting not just the town, but in many rural New York State municipalities. The proposed elimination of the department would have an annual savings of just over $181,000. The board told a masked crowd of less than a dozen attendees the availability of trained staff was shrinking, and costs and state regulations expanding.

The residents who showed up all spoke against getting rid the police department.

The board’s top concern at the public hearing was not to back the proposal to abolish the department, but assure critics that is was up to the public, not them, to decide.

The town’s annual revenue is about $225,000 from sales tax and $115,000 from state aid. Due to COVID the board has been told to prepare for cuts at least equalling $68,000 this coming year, and officials think it will persist for the next several years.

“Can we get through this next year? Yes, with certain cuts, but if this continues beyond 2021 we will have to make decisions,” warned Starr.

He said the town would like to buy new trucks and resell old ones soon or else risk losing money longterm. “10-wheelers, $250,000k a piece,” he said.

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“We have about half that much in our truck fund.With the cuts the state is doing, we can’t possibly go forward with buying two trucks.”

CHIPS funds and Pave NY programs help aid the town, but with those state programs also lacking money he said, “ We were doing seven miles of road, now we’re down to making only four or five miles of road.”

“Where do the funds come from? Unfortunately we are looking at the funds coming from the monies we have set aside to operate the town’s police department, which is $181,500. That would go a long way toward being able to keep the roads up and repaired and buy new trucks, at least one,” said Starr.

“It’s not that we want to do it but we have to look forward to the future as to how are we going to maintain our good roads, how will we be able to maintain our monies that we have in advance, in our savings accounts. And some of the saving accounts are dedicated to certain things. Like the trucks, this town building, if we need a new roof. This year we put in a new heating system,” said Starr.

“We do not want to cut our savings down to the bare bones to do it. It’s not just $181,000 next year, but every year after to keep your taxes down rather than raising them up.”

Starr said the town might have to break the state’s tax cap of 1.5 percent in the near future.

“Every year we’re cutting a little here and a little there, and seven years later we are cut to the point we are not going to be able to do things unless we have more money for our budget. And our budget is the police department’s budget,” he said.

Resident Kevin Christian asked how often the town replaced its DPW trucks and how long they would last. He compared them to the challenges facing the local fire departments.

“We’ve got six firetrucks that start from 1989 to 2000. We use them longer because we can’t afford to replace them.”

“The longer you go the less you’re going to get for the truck,” said Starr.

Board member John Parks said, “The maintenance alone will get to you quick.”

“But it’s also possible to go a couple more years,” said Christian.

“That is what we will have to do. Eventually our money will start coming up short. You can’t spend money you don’t have, ” said Starr.

He explained the town has relied on patterns and predicted amounts in the past, learning from experience, and changes to these patterns and habits will likely have consequences, but they might buy time.

Starr said in the end the town could end up spending more from savings or borrowing more through bonds.

Christian continued, “But even if you cut down one truck, you’re going to make up the difference to keep them involved. And keep them going, at $235,000 a truck.”

Board member Parks responded, “Those options are there. You are absolutely right. This is not something that is gonna happen just next year. This is a three-year, four-year thing we’re dealing with here. The taxes and New York State are going to be terrible for the townships for the next three to four years I feel. This is something we have to look at– the budgets we do now we have to look four or five years ahead now. If we don”t we will get into trouble.”

Another resident who did not give his name said, “Like you were saying, how much would you have to raise the taxes, though I’m sure nobody in here wants to hear that, but like how much would it really be to leave it where it is or keep them here?”

“I am not an accountant, I can’t tell you that,” said Starr.

“Well, you should have the information,” said the man.

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“The Chenango County Treasurers Office sets that all up anyway.” Starr said.

“Right but if you’re talking like 2 percent, I pay more than that for my light outside of my house. If that’s the case, we could do that too,” said the man.

Another resident behind him shouted out his taxes added up to “about 41 bucks” a year for the PD. He said his water bill was $107 and asked, “That’s your water bill, what’s the price of your safety?”

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