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TOWN MUST HIRE 3 OFFICERS TO QUALIFY FOR DISPUTED GRANT

The addition of five new officers to the Cheektowaga Police Department and a heightened police presence in and around the town's schools and neighborhoods is only three new officers and a $625,000 grant away, says the department's administration.

But the plan is coming under fire from some members of the Cheektowaga Town Board, who believe the idea is untimely and could end up costing the town significantly more money.

Under the proposal funded through the federal COPS (Community Oriented Policing) program, the town would receive 75 percent of the funding to hire the additional five officers for the department over a three-year period. The town would need to pick up the cost of the program for at least one additional year.

The manpower gained under the grant would be allocated to providing officer support in the four school districts in Cheektowaga.

But here's the catch: The grant requires 133 sworn officers to be on staff in the Police Department. The Cheektowaga Police Department currently has 130.

Proponents say the plan would put eight new officers out on the street and in the schools for the price of a little more than three. But Town Board members are urging further study be conducted to evaluate the grant and favor an audit of Police Department needs before anything is voted on.

"Basically, what we would be doing is policing the schools as we would any neighborhood," Bruce Chamberlain, chief of the Cheektowaga Police, said of the grant program.

This particular grant program is unusual because it triples the 25 percent funding that is normally provided in federal government policing grants, the chief said.

Chamberlain said the five new officers likely would be assigned to street duty as many of the officers in the department are. But the police would be able to compensate for the portion of time its officers currently spend off the street and in the schools for the School Liaison Program, the DARE program and several other safety-related programs.

"The school situation is certainly pressing enough that we are going to keep it going one way or another," Chamberlain said. "This (grant program) is certainly something we could use."

Currently, the Cheektowaga upolice assign two officers to each of four school districts townwide. Those officers make up to four visits per week to the schools, meeting with teachers, administrators and students, Chamberlain said. In order to run the program, however, officers are pulled from the streets and put into the schools unreimbursed, the chief pointed out.

That could all change with the large federal grant, he said.

But, while they say an increased presence in schools is important, the manner in which the proposal was announced and the costs involved have drawn the ire of some town officials.

Councilman Thomas M. Johnson Jr. contends police officials unfairly tried to put the board in a decision-making situation at a time when it lacked sufficient information about the grant requirements.

Johnson accused police officials of advising the board as to the grant's threshold requirement for staffing and bringing their petition for the three new officers to the board's attention only days before a vote was to have taken place on the 2000 budget.

"We're not going to take action at the 11th hour," Johnson said. "We are going to do it under the process we should be doing all things.

"The Police Department shouldn't be filing any damn grants without the complete review and authorization by the Town Board. That should mean a complete disclosure of the requirements of the grants," he said.

Johnson believes the board should not take action on a resolution to hire the officers until an audit of the police staffing and expenditures along with the requirements of each of the police grants is completed by the town's attorney, accountants and independent consultant.

But, according to Cheektowaga Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak, a resolution could be brought before the board regarding the three prospective hires as early as its next board meeting Tuesday. From there, the supervisor said, further investigation will be made into the grant program itself, with a determination to be reached "as soon as possible."

Costs of the program now and in the future seem to be the chief concerns among board members, Gabryszak admitted. But the types of school programs initiated and run by the Police Department are invaluable, he said.

"It's important to have these types of programs," he said. "You take a look at what's happening in schools across the country and we want to be pro-active here."

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