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Sheriff's takeover of transit police eyed Howard, NFTA head exploring merger

The officers patrolling Buffalo Niagara International Airport, Metro Bus and Metro Rail could soon be wearing the uniforms of the Erie County Sheriff's Office.

Talks are under way exploring absorbing transit police into the Sheriff's Office.

Though the proposal is preliminary and obstacles remain, Sheriff Timothy B. Howard and Kimberley A. Minkel, executive director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, say they have discussed merging the 80-member Transit Authority Police Department into the Sheriff's Office.

The main question is whether both agencies could save enough money to make the merger worthwhile.

"This would be different from other mergers, because in this case it is being driven by the NFTA officers themselves," Howard said. "These guys are interested in doing the merger for the sake of their jobs."

But Howard noted the move also could eliminate many redundancies between the two police forces, while the Transit Police Benevolent Association estimates yearly savings of between$1 million and $1.9 million in a $10 million budget.

Minkel said the deficit-ridden NFTA is embarking on a "new day" of reinventing itself and is open to any idea that saves money. But she said the NFTA board of commissioners must be convinced that the savings will prove substantial.

"Before we move forward we really need to see the economics," she said. "But we're looking at everything."

David Zarbo, president of the Transit PBA, said the plan stems from union fears that police layoffs will continue beyond the 20 that have already occurred as part of NFTA efforts to fill a $14.7 million deficit.

"I'm concerned about future layoffs and the guys laid off already," he said. "I don't see it stopping at 20. It's just going to get worse."

The transit police layoffs resulted in the elimination of a significant portion of the department, prompting safety concerns from the police union and at least one commissioner.

"That's a tough decision for me to live with," Commissioner Michael P. Hughes said last week. "I still don't support it."

Minkel emphasized Tuesday that she does not anticipate any more police layoffs.

"We brought it down to where the department was back in 2005," she said. "Anything beyond that, I would have to look at how it would impact the safety and security of the operation. I would never say never, but the department was impacted quite a bit."

Nevertheless, the union has advanced the new plan for several reasons, including providing civil service status that the officers do not currently enjoy but would under the sheriff's jurisdiction. The NFTA has been working with State Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma, and Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, to allow civil service status for the 20 laid-off officers so they can join other police agencies.

Zarbo said constitutional questions could block such a move. Under a merger plan, however, he said NFTA officers would be automatically granted civil service status. That would allow any officers laid off in the merger to seek employment with other police agencies.

Howard, meanwhile, said he is intrigued because a merger would eliminate overlap in accident investigation, narcotics, juvenile details, SWAT teams and other operations that could operate under one command.

He also said his department could immediately fill a host of vacancies by absorbing NFTA officers without referring to the civil service list. He said that with proper authorization, he could avoid the expense of six months of training for new officers.

"There are a lot of big pluses here," he said. "We'd like to avail ourselves to some of the laid-off officers, and merger is most attractive to us. And there are certainly real redundancies here between the NFTA and the Sheriff's Office."

Howard said union attorney W. James Schwann has written to the NFTA board of commissioners asking if it is open to fully studying the idea or whether it has been rejected out of hand. He said he does not believe the letter has been answered.

Minkel, meanwhile, said she has not heard back from the union on how and where savings will be realized.

She also said some commissioners have questions about compliance with Transportation Security Administration regulations both at the airport and in the subway.

"After 9/1 1, the world changed," she said. "More and more security requirements come every day."

Other transit systems, such as New York City's, have merged transit police into the city force in recent years.

And the idea of patrol services provided by either sheriff's deputies or Buffalo police officers was explored initially when the subway was constructed in the 1980s.

Former NFTA Chairman Raymond F. Gallagher recently told The Buffalo News that Ralph V. Degenhart, then the Buffalo police commissioner, and Kenneth J. Braun, the late Erie County sheriff, declined to become involved at the time.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com