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Public opinion split on filling Potsdam police vacancy

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POTSDAM - Split public opinion isn’t making the village board’s job any easier as it decides whether to cut the size of the police department.

“There’s strong feelings on both sides of the issue,” Mayor Steven W. Yurgartis said. “It’s going to come down to the board making a tough call.”

The village board listened to supporters and opponents of filling a vacant department position for an hour Monday night. Officials are determining whether, and how, to fill the vacancy created when they promoted Kevin A. Bates, formerly a sergeant, to police chief on March 31. Mr. Bates replaced the retired Edward F. Tischler.

Of nearly 10 who spoke at the meeting, approximately half wanted the position filled. Mr. Yurgartis received eight emails and letters about the vacancy: four in support of filling it, four against.

Board members took no action on the vacancy Monday. The board will pick one of three options. It could leave Mr. Bates’s sergeant position unfilled, which would decrease the department staff from 13 to 12; it could hire an additional patrolman to the staff but leave the sergeant position unfilled, decreasing the number of sergeants from three to two, or it could promote a patrolman to sergeant and hire a replacement.

The village has approximately $894,000 budgeted for police salaries in the 2012-13 spending plan, officials previously said. Hiring a patrolman but keeping the sergeant position vacant would save $5,500. Not hiring anyone else would save approximately $85,000.

Those community members who favored hiring spoke of the need to maintain village services.

“I think a reduction in the size of our police force flirts with danger,” long-time Posdam attorney Verner M. Ingram Jr. said. “We need a police force that is equipped and manned to ... respond when there is a problem.”

Mr. Bates urged the board at a previous meeting to fill the vacancy. Monday night, he pointed out the department already agreed one year ago to leave another vacant sergeant position unfilled.

“Not filling two positions in one year is asking too much of the police department,” Mr. Bates said. “We’ve made some changes to keep the level of services now that we still had a year ago. But it’s getting harder.”

Former Potsdam Volunteer Fire Chief Joseph Gallagher read a letter on behalf of the department in support of hiring.

“The Potsdam Police Department has consistently provided exemplary service for as long as memory serves,” he said. “Don’t place them in a position that will diminish their ability to continue those efforts.”

But landlord Willy Dailey said it was becoming too expensive to maintain services at their current levels. Mr. Yurgartis estimated the total cost of hiring a new officer could be anywhere from $5 to $10 million over the course of his or her lifetime,

“The cost of taxes in the village is continuing to force people out of the village,” Mr. Dailey said. “I think we have to look really long and hard at the costs ... $5 million is a lot of money, at least to me.”

Resident Frederick T. Maurer also questioned the position’s necessity.

“I think the village is safe enough,” Mr. Maurer said. “As far as I’m concerned, we don’t need anybody else.”

Mr. Yurgartis said he may call a special meeting before the end of the month to made a final decision.

“We will be deliberating for the next week or so,” he said.

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