If the Sag Harbor Village Board approves its tentative 2013-14 budget, the village’s police force will drop below the level necessary to maintain patrols. At least that was the message delivered by Sag Harbor Police Chief Tom Fabiano to the board in a letter last week. On the other side of the debate, Mayor Brian Gilbride and Trustee Ed Gregory appear to be using the budget process as a cudgel to win concessions from the police during contract negotiations. It is risky brinksmanship, a game that Sag Harbor residents and taxpayers should take seriously.
Underlying the conflict is a belief, expressed from the start by Mr. Gilbride, that keeping taxes low is a top priority. The village’s proposed budget is just over $8.26 million and represents only a modest increase from the previous year’s. Though much has been made of the state’s 2-percent cap on tax-levy increases, at least as far as the village is concerned, it is a permeable barrier. A simple 3-to-2 vote of the village board would be enough to exceed that limit, and this might win public support if it meant the difference between keeping the homegrown Police Department or paying an outside jurisdiction, for example Southampton Town or the Suffolk Sheriff’s Office, to patrol the streets.
Throughout the debate not enough has been made of the intangibles of having Sag Harbor’s own police, but community policing is considered a model of how to maintain public safety and keep crime rates low. There is also something to be said for officers who know all the nooks and crannies of the places they are responsible for and the vulnerable residents who may need a little extra looking after. Sag Harbor has a strong sense of identity and pride; its police play a role in keeping it so. Giving that up in the heat of a budget fight would be a mistake.
Residents should be encouraged to have their say, and, if public support is there, to pay for the privilege of having their own police force.