Six years after Westchester County was contracted to take over policing responsibilities in Mount Kisco, village officials are likely to hold a referendum this fall to officially disband the local department.
Under the state constitution and Municipal Home Rule Law, if a municipality decides to relinquish a power such as police services, the public is allowed to weigh in on a permanent transfer of function, said Village Attorney Whitney Singleton.
The village and the county entered into an Intermunicipal Agreement (IMA) to have the Westchester County Department of Public Safety, which started June 1, 2015, to provide virtually all police services to Mount Kisco in a move to cut costs and improve service. A second five-year agreement went into effect last year.
If officials do not opt for a referendum, the village would need to maintain a minimum of four full-time officers and a chief to avoid a potential lawsuit, negating the cost-cutting advantages of contracting with the county. Village Manager Ed Brancati said staffing at that level would cost a minimum of $500,000 a year and perhaps up to $1 million, including equipment and other ancillary costs.
A previous Village Board approved the IMA by a resolution and never scheduled a referendum, but continued to fund a part-time police chief, who oversees the village’s school crossing guards and parking enforcement, Brancati said.
“The question is are you abolishing the department or are you supporting the services of the existing department?” Singleton said. “If you’re supplementing the services of your existing department and our department is going to continue to exist, it has to be more than a mere figurehead.”
Mayor Gina Picinich said the county and civil service representatives told the village that a part-time chief is insufficient staffing.
The threat to the village of maintaining the status quo could be a lawsuit from a party or entity. Singleton said in that event, legal precedent would likely be against Mount Kisco. The upstate Village of Liverpool was sued by the City of Syracuse in a very similar situation, where it effectively disbanded its department and sought other police services but maintained a part-time chief, he said. Liverpool lost the case.
Brancati said the choices are clear – staff what could be argued is a legitimate department or take the step to officially abolish it.
“The current situation is neither sustainable or tenable, I don’t believe, long-term,” Brancati said. “We need to make a decision one way or the other to strengthen our position and easily defend ourselves, whichever way we go.”
Singleton said to place a referendum to officially abolish the department on this year’s general election ballot, the Village Board must first adopt a local law so the village clerk could then have it placed on the ballot by the early August deadline. It could also choose to hold a special election at another time but that would cost additional money and draw a much smaller percentage of the citizenry, he said.
The decision to take the step should not require much deliberation, Deputy Mayor Anthony Markus said. In addition to the village saving at least $500,000 a year since entering into the IMA, there has been little, if any, complaint about the county police’s performance.
“If we want to increase our budget by $500,000 to a million dollars, which is about a three-and-a-half percent to 7 percent increase in taxes, what decision do we have to make,” Markus said.
A concern could be the public wondering why this issue is now appearing before the voters six years after the county took over police services, and some residents confusing it with the “defund the police” movement, Picinich said.
She said the vote is an administrative action. All officers from the former Mount Kisco Police Department that wanted to keep their jobs were absorbed into the county force.
“The notion of abolishing the police is a different conversation then the conversation that we’re having,” Picinich said. “We’re having a conversation about cleaning up administrative details that deal with the transition of public safety and our partnership with the Westchester County police.”