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After months of speculation, controversial Lancaster Police Chief Thomas E. Fowler has announced that he will retire Jan. 3, paving the way for a merger between the town and village Police Departments, officials said Wednesday.

Fowler, 57, made his plans known in a letter to Supervisor Robert H. Giza and the Town Board.

"I want to thank the board for the many opportunities it has bestowed upon me over the years, and I hope the board will continue to recognize, in the future, the high degree of professionalism, programming and public service exemplified by the Town of Lancaster Police Department," he wrote.

Giza praised Fowler.

"Tom has served the Town of Lancaster well over his years of service," the supervisor said. "We wish him well."

With Fowler's departure, the town and the village will move ahead with plans for merging the police forces, Giza said.

On Dec. 15, Lancaster Village Police Chief Gary Stoldt will be appointed chief of the town's police force, effective Jan. 4. At that point, the village plans to contract with the town for police chief services until the merger goes through, tentatively in March, officials said.

Initially, the combined departments will remain in two buildings, but soon after the merger occurs, officials will look for a single headquarters, they said.

The town and village police forces have been discussing the merger for months but have been waiting for Fowler's retirement to make the plan cost-effective.

In addition to Fowler, one of the town police captains, Anthony Suchyna, is also retiring at the beginning of the year.

Excluding benefits, Fowler last year earned $93,870, and Suchyna $79,550.

Not having to pay those salaries is key to making the merger work, town officials have said. The merger is expected to reduce costs almost immediately, said Lancaster Village Mayor William G. Cansdale Jr.

"We thought it might take a year or two, but I'm confidant we'll almost immediately hit the target," he said.

Cansdale estimates that village residents will see an approximately $22 reduction in taxes, based on a $70,000 home, while town residents will see a $27 reduction, based on a $100,000 home.

"We will have the same level of protection," he said.

Fowler, a 35-year veteran of the department, has served as police chief since 1979.

In the last few years, he has been beset by controversy:

A no-confidence vote passed unanimously during a police union meeting in 1999, when officers accused him of "vindictiveness" against officers with opinions different from his.

In two recent instances, officers accused of wrongdoing by the department had the charges overturned in court, or by the state.

More recently, residents attending Town Board meetings have questioned how many hours Fowler spends at work, noting that he is also an attorney. Fowler's supporters branded the accusations nothing more than long-festering grudges by people once investigated by the chief.

Also this year, Fowler was criticized when his request for a pension upgrade was approved. Fowler qualified for the upgrade based on a 1999 amendment to state law passed by State Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Lancaster, with whom Fowler shares a law office.

It is estimated that the sweetener will increase Fowler's annual pension to $67,500, from about $63,000. The change cost the town about $14,000 this year. "I'm entitled to the same benefits that every other police officer in the town gets," Fowler said earlier this year.

In addition, Fowler has asked town officials to buy back accrued sick days in two payments -- half this year and half next -- for tax purposes.

Giza said the board is still evaluating that request.

Fowler could not be reached to comment.


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