SARANAC LAKE - Facing the loss of several full-time, veteran police officers over the next few months, the village plans to replenish the police department's ranks and cut costs at the same time by hiring more part-time officers.
The head of the union representing village police, Patrolman James Joyce, said he'd prefer the village replace full-time officers in kind, but he said he understands the reasons why the village is pursuing more part-time help.
At a special meeting Thursday, the village Board of Trustees approved a resolution that gives village Manager John Sweeney and police Chief Bruce Nason the go-ahead to immediately hire up to four part-time police officers and one full-time officer. The latter is contingent on "a successful report of negotiations from our labor counsel" following an Aug. 27 meeting with representatives of the police union, according to the board's resolution.
Members of the Saranac Lake Police Department discuss the progress of a series of drug raids around the village in August 2013. From left are Patrolman Aaron Donaldson, Patrolwoman Reyanin Peck, Patrolman James Joyce, Sgt. Bill Cote and Patrolman Jason Swain.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
The move to bring on more part timers follows last month's hiring of the department's first part-time officer in at least two decades: Luke Cromp of Malone, who also works as a full-time Franklin County sheriff's deputy/correction officer.
It also comes amid a string of departures and pending retirements in the department. Patrolman Chris Dionne resigned last month to take a job with another police agency. Sgt. James Law plans to retire in September, Mayor Clyde Rabideau said Thursday. Coupled with two other pending retirements, including Nason's, "that would bring the total police officers leaving the department for the remainder of this year to four," Rabideau said.
"So it's incumbent upon us to start refilling the ranks in a prudent and thoughtful way, and a cost-effective way," the mayor said. "Our thought is that hiring part-time officers, if they're available, would be the primary way, and that we would need at least one full-time officer."
Speaking with the Enterprise after Thursday's meeting, Rabideau summed up the shift toward part-time help in the police department in one word.
"Money," he said. "A large percentage of our tax levy goes to the police department. Full-time officers cost a tremendous amount more than part-time officers. We're in a village of 5,400 people who can only afford what we can afford."
Rabideau added that there are many police departments around the state that use a contingent of part-time officers, "and they operate very successfully, and we can, too."
Joyce, president of the Saranac Lake Police Benevolent Association, said the last time the police department had part-time officers was in the late 1980s or early 1990s. He acknowledged that part timers are effective in other communities like the village of Lake Placid, which currently has two part-time officers but has had as many as four in the past.
He said part timers would be helpful for special event coverage and routine patrols, but he was concerned that they might not be as effective in handling cases that require ongoing investigation. A part-time officer who starts such a case may have to hand it off to another officer because he or she may not be working every day, Joyce said.
"Operationally, it will be a little different," he said. "I have never worked with part-time officers here, and I do want to remain open-minded to the fact that this is a thing that a lot of departments are doing due to staffing and budget concerns. In a perfect world, I'd say 'No, we don't want any part-timers at all and let's put eight full-timers in,' but that's not realistic."
Whether it's by full-time or part-time officers, Joyce said it's important to have a fully staffed police department, especially given the drug abuse problems in the area, particularly the rise in heroin usage and overdoses.
"It's a crisis," Joyce said.
The hiring of another full-time officer was made contingent on the outcome of contract negotiations between the village and the PBA. The union's current contract expired in May 2013.
"It went to mediation, and then it went quiet for a long time," Joyce said. "We kind of lit that fire again in the springtime and we're meeting later this month. I think it's going to be an initial 'Here's where we're at, let's see where you are at,' and try to work toward a resolution."
Nason will retire sometime in December or January. By then, he'll have been with the department for 20 years, including the last six as chief.
Asked how soon the village will bring on his replacement, Rabideau said the civil service test for the position has been advertised but won't take place until after Nason has left, meaning the department will use an acting chief until the list of eligible candidates is made available.
"We'll be preparing to interview candidates from within our ranks for acting chief within a month to two months," Rabideau said. "The chief has said it would take only about 30 days to acclimate an acting chief to his duties from within the ranks."