Evans residents have been grumbling about their town's financial mess in earnest since it borrowed nearly $1 million from Erie County last month.
Some have done more than grumble. Evans Taxpayers United is suggesting the town can save nearly half a million dollars. All it has to do is eliminate the town's police department and switch its police protection to the Erie County Sheriff's Office.
"I don’t know if this is going to be an easy sell or a tough sell," said Stan Radwan, a retired Buffalo police detective and former insurance fraud detector and member of the taxpayers group.
"The police force is not the issue, it was mismanagement of our government," said Supervisor Mary K. Hosler, who is finishing her first year as supervisor. "This wouldn’t be an issue if people would have managed our town finances right over the last five years."
She questioned some of the savings projected by the group, but said she plans to meet with the sheriff in the new year to discuss options.
"If there’s an opportunity, we look at it," she said, adding that the town also is working on cutting costs and increasing revenues.
The town ran out of money this year after years of borrowing to address fiscal mismanagement dating back nearly a decade. Unpaid vendors bills approached $700,000, and lending institutions refused to give the town credit.
The taxpayers group, like others, is worried about town taxes.
"All I want to see is our taxes drop," Radwan said. "This group is offering our town a possible way to save over $400,000."
The Evans Police Department won acclaim this year after its dogged investigation of a fatal hit-and-run accident that killed pedestrian Barry Moss resulted in the arrest and conviction of a motorist, Gabriele P. Ballowe, who left Moss lying on the side of Route 5 after her car hit him in December, 2013. Ballowe was sentenced to one year in jail Tuesday morning.
The taxpayers group obtained the cost of salary and benefits for the 23-member Evans Police Department and the sheriff's department, and had a certified public accountant review them. It presented the study and a report from the state comptroller's office on sharing services to the Town Board Wednesday night.
Lt. Douglas Czora was appointed temporary police chief recently after Ernest P. Masullo retired as chief, but under the group's proposal, the police chief's position would not be filled. Other than the chief, the group compared the same number of officers and and equivalent ranks in the sheriff's department.
Evans police officers earn more than sheriff's deputies, the report says, and it concludes there could be an annual savings of $472,558.
"They’re all good guys, all well qualified," Radwan said of Evans police officers.
Evans has 1.48 full-time officers per 1,000 residents in the town, which is below the national average. The average number of full-time officers in a police department serving 10,000 to 24,999 people is 1.91 per 1,000 residents, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. But the issue is more about saving money for the town, than reducing the number of officers, group members said.
The taxpayers group said some of its statistics are a couple years old, and the Town Board would have to update the information. Its report assumes the 23 town officers would be hired by the sheriff's department, and would not lose jobs.
Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard said it would be up to the town to request protection from his office.
“We provide primary police protection to 16 of the 25 towns in Erie County. We do that at their request. I would oppose the sheriff’s office or any larger municipality forcing their services onto a smaller community,” he said.
Hosler said the taxpayer group does not appear to have considered civilian workers and non-labor costs, or what would happen with the town's dispatch center. She said she wants to fully understand the town's fiscal position before making changes.
The town has been forced into short-term borrowing the last four years, but the start of the financial downfall was the mismanagement of the borrowing of $12.6 million for a water project, she said.
"We’re still sorting out the loan. What we’re working out now is to figure out where we really stand on the water project," she said.
Hosler said the town is working to improve its finances by:
- Pursuing hundreds of thousands of dollars in reimbursements for the water project and money spent on the November 2014 storm.
- Reducing maintenance of "zombie" homes in the town by about $200,000 a year.
- Reducing the police car fleet to 10 or fewer vehicles to save on insurance and maintenance.
- Not hiring two new officers after two retirements in the Police Department, saving about $200,000.
- Undergoing a health care audit that saved $110,000 on insurance costs.
She said the town is still looking to quantify how much it owes to whom, and how to best handle that. It could be by consolidating its debt through deficit financing, which she said would need the approval of the state comptroller and Legislature.
"I want the residents to feel like there is a light at the end of the tunnel,"she said, adding, "I’m just not going to make a knee jerk reaction."