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Proposal is worth exploring; Sheriff's takeover of NFTA police force has benefits, but raises many questions

It's a welcome idea and, at least at first glance, not a bad one at all. The concept of merging the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority Police Department into the Erie County Sheriff's Office holds enough potential advantages for each agency that it is well worth investigating.

But there are also potential problems with such a plan. What is more, there are other ways to address the issue of the NFTA police, as it affects the authority's deficit, that could also be beneficial. This should not be a snap decision.

All the primary stakeholders are interested in investigating this approach: the NFTA, the Sheriff's Office and the Transit Police Benevolent Association, which first proposed the idea.

The issue for the union is jobs. Facing a $14.7 million deficit, the NFTA has already laid off 20 police officers and, although Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel says the authority does not anticipate more job cuts, union President David Zarebo fears exactly that. In addition to preserving jobs, union members would gain because the NFTA officers would achieve civil service status as Sheriff's Office employees.

For the NFTA, the issue is its deficit. The flood of red ink has already resulted in police and other layoffs, a fare increase, service cuts and efforts to sell Buffalo's Small Boat Harbor and Gallagher Beach complex. If the NFTA could transfer policing responsibilities to the Sheriff's Office, it would save an estimated $1 million to $1.9 million, according to union calculations.

For the Sheriff's Office, absorbing the NFTA police would eliminate overlap in accident investigation, narcotics, juvenile details, SWAT teams and other operations. It would also allow Sheriff Timothy B. Howard to fill many vacancies without referring to the civil service list, and possibly avoid the expense of six months of training for new officers. "There are a lot of big pluses here," he said.

There are, but there are also questions:

*If the NFTA sheds its Police Department, will it be paying the Sheriff's Office for that service? If so, how much, and what does that mean to taxpayers?

*How will the different salary and benefit packages for the two forces be consolidated?

*What are the potential savings for the NFTA? An impartial analysis needs to be conducted.

*Does it make more sense to split the department between two agencies, with Buffalo police taking on responsibility for the Metro Rail, which is entirely contained within the city?

*How will responsibility for policing at Buffalo Niagara International Airport be handled, in light of federal mandates for airport staffing?

These are only some of the issues that need to be explored, but the incentive is there for all parties to do so with open minds.

It's a worthwhile idea, one so attractive that it is surprising that the NFTA, in the process of reinventing itself, didn't come up with it before the union did. The NFTA should have been looking at all aspects of its operations with an eye toward answering two questions: Is this vital to our core mission of transportation, and if so, is there a better way to provide the service?