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GIAMBRA EYES MERGER OF CITY, COUNTY POLICE

County Executive Joel A. Giambra is calling on top local leaders to take a hard look at merging the services of the Buffalo Police Department and the Erie County Sheriff's Department.

Giambra said Tuesday that the consolidation of police services in the City of Buffalo could save a lot of money in a time of worsening economic conditions in the city and the county.

"This crisis is a real opportunity for all of us, in that it lets us put things on the table that we couldn't in the past," Giambra said. "I believe we could charge them less money than they're paying now and give them better patrols."

Mayor Anthony M. Masiello reacted to the proposal with caution.

"There have been a lot of conversations about this idea," he said. "My feeling is, let's get the facts first. Let's make sure that it would save money and protect our citizens. Let's see what benefit and value it may have. If so, we should move forward. If not, we can consider other alternatives."

A complete merger of the Police and Sheriff's departments would be a first in New York State, experts in Albany said.

"It would be the first of its kind in the State of New York; it would be unique," said Stephen J. Acquario, legislative director for the New York State Association of Counties.

Erie County Sheriff Patrick M. Gallivan and Buffalo Police Commissioner Rocco J. Diina met with Giambra administration officials in the Rath County Office Building late Tuesday for an initial discussion of the issue. Another meeting is scheduled in a few weeks. Diina and Gallivan have a history of rancorous relations, largely because of a 1997 campaign for county sheriff in which Gallivan defeated Diina.

Gallivan said he is "open-minded to anything" that might provide good services to residents at a lower cost. But Gallivan said he also has a few concerns about the process.

"I don't think that anything should be taken lightly in looking at this," the sheriff said. "If we can do this better, and it's more cost-effective, how can you say no to it? By the same token, if we're going to have a decline in services -- even if it's cheaper -- are you willing to do that?"

Diina also said he is open to a study but emphasized that it should be undertaken by consultants who are familiar with law enforcement. He also said a merger could go either way -- meaning that the Buffalo Police Department could take over the Sheriff's Department.

"We're all receptive to looking at this, but it can go both ways," Diina said. "We've already embarked on a lot of cooperative efforts. Some of these ideas sound good on paper, but there's no real cost savings."

Giambra said that if the key leaders decide to go forward, the move toward consolidation would proceed very slowly.

Among the obstacles, Giambra said, would be existing contracts with unions for police and sheriff's personnel. But any combination of the departments would benefit the sheriff's officers because it would mean that their salaries would be increased to match those of the Buffalo police, Giambra said.

It is "way too early" to talk about any impact on the unions, Gallivan said, but "certainly the unions need to be involved in this process."

Giambra, a Republican, said the first step would be recruiting a consulting firm for an independent study of the potential for a merger or for consolidating services to some lesser extent -- for example, by having Buffalo contract with the Sheriff's Department to provide police patrols within city limits.

"You could almost have a Buffalo division to the Erie County Sheriff's Department," Giambra said. "I would say no Buffalo police officer would lose his or her job. If it didn't work out, the City of Buffalo would be free, I guess, to go back to the old way."

It is not yet clear who would pay for a consultant's study, which likely would take up to a year to complete, Giambra administration officials said.

Giambra administration officials said that one key cost savings might result from the fact that the Sheriff's Department allows one officer per patrol car rather than requiring two, as the Buffalo Police Department does. The city has tried to change that rule in the past, but the police union has argued against it, contending that it is a safety issue for the police officers.

In some city neighborhoods, at some times of day, two-officer patrols are simply not necessary, said Deputy County Executive Carl J. Calabrese.

"One size doesn't have to fit all," he said. "If, in North Buffalo, you can do one-officer cars, you can do it."

But Diina said that there are safety issues that make patrolling Buffalo much different from the kinds of services that the Sheriff's Department provides in the suburbs.

One-officer patrols are more "efficient," Diina said, but there are places in the city where they are just not feasible.

"You can't do that in a high-crime area in certain times," the commissioner said.

A merger or Sheriff's Department takeover of police services in the city could actually result in more patrol cars on the streets, Giambra administration officials said, but Diina pointed out that more cars would cost taxpayers more money.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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