Craft continues work toward referendum
by Autumn Evans
A petition to dissolve the Lewiston Police Department into the Niagara County Sheriff's Office has received mixed reactions from residents, police and town officials.
The petition, written by Lewiston resident and former trustee Ronald Craft, first surfaced late last month amidst continued reports the town was under financial duress.
"I'm thinking here, all these people are complaining about taxes. I just think we're paying too much for police," Craft said. His goal is to have the issue put up for voter referendum in the fall.
Craft said he has collected more than 430 signatures from residents across a wide area of Lewiston, from the Escarpment to Sanborn. Only 275 signatures are required for a petition to begin the process on becoming a referendum.
"I'm really surprised at the amount that I've got," he said. "I thought I'd have a hard time getting what I did, but it's been easy."
Lewiston police, on the other hand, have concerns about what Craft is telling petition signers.
Chief of Police Chris Salada said he believed Craft was telling people that, were the consolidation to happen, department personnel would be absorbed into the sheriff's office. However, he said the sheriff's office has no obligation to take on the extra officers, so there is no guarantee their jobs would be preserved.
Furthermore, of the 19 officers at the department, nine are part-time. Because the sheriff's office has no part-time positions, they would not be able to keep their positions on the new force.
Disregarding possible job cuts, Salada said he believes his officers are both necessary and appreciated in Lewiston.
"We feel we're a very important piece of keeping this community safe," he said. "Obviously, we don't want to go anywhere. We feel we're the best fit for this community."
Salada said the department has been receiving overwhelming support from residents on its Facebook page. A post he wrote in response to the petition, reinforcing his position that the force was an integral part of Lewiston, was shared more than 50 times and "Liked" more than 240 times.
The backlash from Lewiston police prompted Craft to release a statement justifying his stance.
"The referendum is about dollars and cents and how taxpayers can get needed services at less cost," Craft wrote in a letter to the Sentinel.
However, when the Lewiston Village Board of Trustees investigated the same issue in 2012, it found cost savings would be minimal. A portion of the money saved from eliminating the police department would go toward paying the sheriff's office to patrol the area.
The sheriff's office, meanwhile, was not aware of the petition at all until recently.
Sheriff James Voutour said on Tuesday he had not been contacted by either Craft or the Lewiston government, and first heard about the petition through the newspaper.
He said that, without more information, he could not comment on what effects the merger would have, but cautioned residents it would not be an easy process.
"Everybody thinks it's a swipe of the pen, but it's not," Voutour said. "You're talking about union contracts and funding and all that. ... It'd be a lot of work to figure out."
Voutour also said the process would be a new one for the sheriff's office. Though it absorbed North Tonawanda dispatch duties two years ago, it has never taken in an entire police department. Consolidations of that size have happened elsewhere in the state, however, including one in Syracuse earlier this year.
Other Lewiston officials also spoke out against the petition.
Town of Lewiston Supervisor Dennis Brochey said he respected Craft's right to start the petition, but didn't agree with its contents.
"Maybe in some respects he could be (correct), but at the same time, I don't know how you can put a price tag on the safety and security of the people who live in the Town of Lewiston and in the village," he said.
Brochey said he didn't think cutting the police department was necessary. He also said he and Paul Kloosterman, the town's director of finance, were working on alternate plans to alleviate budget costs, but would not disclose what those plans were. He did say he had "no doubt" that they would be able to save thousands by working on the budget this year.
In the meantime, Craft said he will continue working toward a referendum, and that he wanted to make a statement with his petition.
"I want the people to decide on some of these issues," he said.