The Clarkstown Town Board meeting on Tuesday, April 5, 2016 featured some contentious discussion over the hiring of an outside consulting firm to conduct a top to bottom study of the town’s police department.
The Clarkstown Police Department has an annual budget just shy of $50 million dollars and comprises 34% of the overall town budget. Salaries in the department rank as the 2nd highest in New York State. Three of the top brass including the Chief make more money per year than the Police Commissioner in New York City. With overtime, many officers are well into six figure salaries. In a town whose residents are already bearing the 2nd highest property taxes in the entire country, it seems more than reasonable to hire a professional consultant to study cost efficiencies and search for ways to ease the burden on the taxpayers.
Indeed, the overall mandate which swept newly elected Town Supervisor George Hoehmann into office demanded a new focus on fiscal responsibility. Hoehmann has already undertaken efforts to reduce costs in his own office and in the office of the Town Attorney. While these cost reductions were accomplished with common sense cuts, the police department isn’t quite as simple.
Rather than implementing unilateral cuts based on financial data, it is prudent for the town to consult with a firm that has experience in looking at all operational aspects rather than just the financial implications. The Town of Clarkstown has an incredibly distinguished police force that is both highly respected and highly competent. Most residents would like to keep it that way, but the question becomes at what cost can that be maintained yet better balanced with the goal of putting the brakes on unsustainable deficit spending, rising taxes and increased debt in the town.
Two residents who spoke out at the Town Board meeting clearly felt otherwise. Citing the need to save money, resident Mark Adelson opined that any necessary cuts could be identified by the Town Attorney and Controller; neither of whom have any idea how to conduct an in-depth review of police operations.
Marge Hook, another resident, felt there is nothing wrong with the current cost of policing in the town and was against any study. Before and after her allotted time speaking at the podium, Hook interrupted others speaking at the meeting with vociferous comments and had to be reprimanded by the supervisor for her behavior. In past Town Board meetings, Hook has engaged in the same behavior and also advocated on behalf of the two patronage positions held by ex-County Legislator Frank Sparaco, who was eventually jailed for election fraud.
After the comments of Adelson and Hook, Police Chief Michael Sullivan began to speak in support of the study. However, as he gained steam he then introduced several caveats about the study itself and the Bonadio Consulting Group that quickly revealed that his level of support was minimal at best.
Sullivan praised the credentials and past performance of the consulting firm the town sought to hire, but then took issue with the scope of the proposed study and revealed it was his opinion that the firm might not have the capability to handle it. He also objected to what he felt was a lack of partnership between the town board and his department in choosing the firm, seemingly unwilling to accept the reality that it would make no sense to allow the Chief Executive Officer of any organization or department that was the subject of a top-to-bottom efficiency and financial review to choose the firm being hired for the job.
After stating the police department would fully comply with any firm hired to conduct a study, Sullivan claimed he and his department had been completely left out of the process. He stated that being left out breeds mistrust and then stressed that trust is a necessary component for the successful completion of this project.
That statement was a far cry from his expression of unequivocal support made at the start of his speech. Sullivan’s statement was rife with such contradictions. He felt the Bonadio Group was highly qualified, but then again not for this particular case. He supported a study and would fully comply, but lacked the trust needed to do so successfully. He was aware this is the Town Board’s decision, but wanted much greater input.
Supervisor Hoehmann responded shortly thereafter that the Chief had in fact been involved in, and informed of, the process from its conception. Hoehmann stated “for the record” that he had gone so far as to exit the room during a meeting with the representatives of the consulting firm to allow Sullivan all the time he needed to ask any questions he might have without the supervisor’s presence.
Sullivan was forced to backtrack on his statements and admit to having indeed been given that opportunity, leaving many in attendance shocked that the Chief of Police would make such a strong statement that was proven completely inaccurate only minutes later.
At least Sullivan’s potential motive for opposing a study of his department could be understood. He seemingly isn’t happy with the fact that his department is about to be scrutinized from top to bottom. The same cannot be said of Councilwoman Stephanie Hausner, who announced to the amazement of Councilman Borelli and others that she would abstain from voting on the decision to conduct the study; thus abrogating her responsibility as an elected representative of her constituents.
Hausner was elected to represent the best interests of her constituents. She has a responsibility to the taxpayers and the town at large which she completely ignored by choosing not to cast a vote. Hausner’s explanation for this was woefully insufficient, as she cited the fact that the term ‘fraud investigators‘ was used in outlining the skills of the team of experts the consulting firm employs. Hausner claimed this was evidence that some board members could not be open-minded with the results of the study.
Despite being assured by Councilman Borelli that fraud was in no way suspected in the department and that the term was only put forth as part of a listing of the firm’s overall credentials, Hausner refused to vote either in favor or against the proposed study. It was a remarkable failure of her sworn duty to represent the interests of the people of Clarkstown. Hausner also suggested the matter needed further discussion and opined that what she perceived to be a lack of opportunity for public input and transparency regarding the process bothered her. Hausner later conceded that she was included in the process and took part in the interviews that winnowed eight applicants down to the final recommendation.
The retention of the Bonadio Group was eventually approved in a 4-0-1 vote with Hausner abstaining. Councilman Noto and Councilwoman Moldow had earlier pointed out that it was inconceivable that anyone could possibly be against a study that at worst will cost the town under 2/10ths of 1 cent for every dollar spent on the overall police department’s budget. Supervisor Hoehmann had also explained that government grants were available that should reduce the cost of the study by half i.e. to 1/10th of one cent of every dollar expended in the operations of the department.
In our view, the Town Board has an obligation to the taxpayers to understand all of its expenditures and to make every attempt to ensure that money is spent responsibly and wisely. The scope of the project to review the operations of the Police Department is too great and too important for it to be undertaken in-house. By approving this reasonable expense to conduct a thorough examination of the department, the town is taking a positive step toward meeting those obligations.
Once the results are reported, the Town Board can then begin an intelligent and informed discussion of ways to responsibly reduce costs in the department. To not undertake this study would be a disservice to every taxpayer in the town. To make unilateral cuts without the proper expertise would be equally irresponsible. By authorizing this study, the Town has chosen the best path toward making sure it can balance costs and need without jeopardizing safety.
Anything less would be unacceptable.
It’s a shame that Police Chief Sullivan took a ‘cop out’ and Councilwoman Hausner an ‘opt out’ on a matter of such dire importance to the future financial health of Clarkstown.
Editor’s Note: The following is a transcript of Sullivan’s remarks and Hoehmann’s reply.
I want to speak on Resolution #8.
Since I have not had the opportunity to speak to the Town Board as a whole regarding this project, I thought it was important to do so before you vote on this resolution.
As I said in the Journal News article of January 27th, we support the police efficiency study. I think that any organization needs to undergo a review from time to time to make sure that they are using their resources in the most cost effective manner possible.
I also think that it is important to gain the cooperation of the organization itself that is being studied. That is why the administration and I have been meeting with members of the department and urging them to fully cooperate with any company that you select.
Just recently being informed that the Bonadio Group is your choice, I have contacted the four police agencies mentioned by the Supervisor in his press statement of March 31st. I want to say up front, all four of these police agencies spoke extremely highly of the Bonadio Group; they were very impressed with them.
But all four of these agencies had the Bonadio Group conduct financial audits of specific areas of the departments such as the property room and cash accounts. None of them had the kind of top to bottom review of all aspects of the department, including staffing and shared services that is called for in the Town’s ‘Request For Proposals’ and the Supervisor’s press statement.
If you want to do an audit of the department I can think of no better company than the Bonadio Group to do it, but they simply do not have the necessary expertise to do the job that is being asked of them. To their credit they contracted with outside consultants to fill this gap. They hired Police Commissioner, George Longworth, and one of his Lieutenants, Lieutenant Weiss, apparently there were other people involved – I’m not sure who they are ….. I just learned that tonight.
The problem for me is that I am not sure of their credentials in reference to the Town’s ‘Request for Proposals’ which states on page 6: “The consultants shall provide information demonstrating at least three references of recent engagements with objectives similar to the the Town of Clarkstown.
If we are going to bring someone in who may very well fundamentally change the Clarkstown Police Department, as Chief Executive Officer it would be nice to know that that person at least matches the criteria that this town board has demanded of him.
As I said, the Clarkstown Police Department strives to be more efficient. We reduced staffing by twelve positions. We worked very hard and very successfully to reduce the amount of personnel out on long term disability. I would conservatively estimate that the savings to the town would be in the area of $15 million dollars over the last five years.
We have restructured the organization several times looking several times for the most efficient ways to conduct business. We have strived to bring the department into the 21st century technologically and we have recently started to implement a new policing philosophy called ‘Intelligence-led Policing’. This is a system of policing that uses data and analysis in order to improve decision-making in order to most efficiently utilize resources.
Today the Clarkstown Police Department runs more efficiently, provides more services, and interacts with the public more productively than ever before. To place the future of the Clarkstown Police Department in the hands of a team that may or may not – I don’t know – understand some of these concepts in the environment in which they occur, is in my opinion a dangerous roll of the dice.
As I said, we have every intention of cooperating with whatever company you decide to hire. But being completely left out of the process, even in requesting what Police departments they have worked with, breeds mistrust – the very trust that is needed that undermines the cooperation that is necessary to successfully complete this project.
I totally understand that this is ultimately the town board’s decision and I totally understand that ultimately this is ultimately the town board’s responsibility and I promise you that whatever company you hire we will work with them to the best of our ability to make sure that this efficiency study is a successful one for both public safety and public finances.
Chief (Sullivan), I don’t recall you being told not to speak with them (Bonadio). In fact when they came in to meet with first yourself and your administration and next with the PBA, I myself and my staff left the room and left you alone with them for a lengthy period of time as we did with the PBA.
So to have the department select the firm that audits itself? I don’t think anybody would do that! But for you to be involved, absolutely! And to ensure that it is an effective process we were working, as I said, in that meeting with you, with the PBA, directly with your office and with the men and women of the Clarkstown Police Department. So I just want to clarify that for the record.
I thank you for your comments and I look forward to your cooperation with the Bonadio Group.
Just to also clarify for the record again about the Bonadio Group, I think Chief that you also indicated that you spoke with the Department of Criminal Justice Services, with the Deputy Commissioner of the State, …
And the Director and they spoke highly of the Bonadio Group?
And just for the record some of the other engagements that the Bonadio Group has undertaken several efficiency studies of government agencies as large as one billion dollars and as small as one million dollars.
There are very few police departments that are like the Clarkstown Police Department given its size and its budget. One of the things we were very cognizant of in feedback I had received directly from you, and from members of the police department and the PBA, was the concern that the town board would look at a firm that would come in to do a review that would be heavily New York City focused.
We were very careful to insure that did not take place and we believe that the team that the Bonadio Group has brought in to strengthen their law enforcement from a regional perspective is strong. Commissioner George Longworth in Westchester County and Lieutenant Jeffrey Weiss who actually wrote the policy procedure for the Westchester County Police.
So there is a strong regional focus and they are not New York City centered. That was one of the things that you had raised when we initially met. So I think we were listening to you and we wanted to make sure that we brought a firm in that would do a thorough job and that it would be up to the town board working with the police department to determine what, if anything, comes from this study, what efficiencies can be found, areas where we can improve services and areas where we can find savings.
[Additional Editor’s Note: The respect Commissioner Longworth earned among his peers as Chief of Police was reflected in his election as President of the Westchester County Chiefs of Police Association in 2000. Commissioner Longworth was also appointed to the Board of Directors of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, and continues to be active with numerous other professional organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the FBI National Academy Association.
Upon his retirement from Dobbs Ferry Police Department, Commissioner Longworth established a successful law practice, where he represented a wide variety of clients, including public safety personnel injured during the atrocities of September 11, 2001.
As the Westchester County Commissioner of Public Safety, Commissioner Longworth has led the Department into an era of providing expanded services to contracted municipal police services, school resource officers and unified in-service police training.
Commissioner Longworth earned a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice from Mercy College in 1991, and a Juris Doctorate from Pace University in 2002. He was admitted to practice law in both New York and Connecticut. Commissioner Longworth is also a graduate of the prestigious FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia.]