Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Cop calls

Dishing out justice is an expensive endeavor. Whether it’s putting cops on the beat, judges in the courtroom, or criminals in prison, it isn’t cheap to keep the streets clean these days, as the Spa City’s City Council learned Monday, when a private engineering firm estimated a new station, courthouse and facility will run more than $21 million to construct.

As anyone with a cursory knowledge of building costs could have attested long before the city shelled out $30,000 for the study, a new public safety office ain’t going to cost a piddling $8- to $9 million. Now, with the results from the so-called feasibility study in hand, even the most myopic of city councilors couldn’t possibly say this new facility won’t cost the taxpayers dearly, even including a $7 million slush fund promised by a freshman congresswoman.

But you can’t put a price tag on public safety, the justice machine bellows. Both the city police and courts are growing in tandem with the population, so without a new station, everyone could be at risk, they claim; buck up, suck it up and pony up the cash, Saratoga. Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and build, build, build, right?

Not exactly. First, let’s ask the question why the number of city court cases has doubled in from 5,000 to 10,000 in just one decade. While the city population has certainly increased –some estimates have it ballooning from about 26,000 to 31,000 over the past decade –it’s hard to see how this increase would have caused such an overwhelming burden on the court system. Given these rudimentary figures, the 6,000 new inhabitants would need to generate almost two new court cases a year to cause this sudden spike.

And then there is the issue about the size of the department itself. There’s no doubt that Saratoga Springs is one of the safer, if not the safest city among those in the Capital Region. No doubt, this is in part a result of the often omnipresent 73-officer strong police force patrolling the streets. There does, however, come a point when having cops on the street waiting for crime becomes a bid redundant and expensive.

Then there’s the issue of where in the city to put the aforementioned station, a 20,000- to 30,000-square-foot monstrosity. Some have suggested in the city-owned lot off Putnam Street near Lillian’s Restaurant or Woodlawn Avenue by Adirondack Trust Co. Then again, someone might want to ask Ray Morris or Charlie Wait their thoughts on a jailhouse opening up near their back entrances.

Perhaps instead of hammering home a new station, it’s time to evaluate exactly where crime is occurring in the city, how frequently it is occurring, and what has been burdening the court system so much as of late. Another question to ask would be why, after 119 years, fund the construction of a huge conglomerate office now?

Yes, the police station looks cramped even to the casual onlooker. But there have got to be better solutions that doling out tens of millions of dollars for a facility that will allow the courts and police to expand at will, rather than thinking out with rationality any augmentation to either; if you give them the space, they will use it and the city government will grow just a bit more each year. Not to mention, what happens to the 8,700-square-foot hole in City Hall? Chances are pretty good that something will expand into that as well.

Here’s a better idea: research ways to make the police force leaner and more efficient, while looking into ways to modernize and expand the facility they have now. There is always more than one way to skin a cat. Just when it comes to public servants, they usually want to choose the more expensive way that will gain them the most bells and whistles.

Editor’s note: for some reason, this post has encountered technical difficulties beyond my abilities or desire to rectify. As some may have noticed, the comments section has been curiously removed from only this post. But fear not, i-Saratoga's undaunted tech guys are on the matter. The following is copied verbatim from what was once posted.

Les Clutter said: Cutting cops is not the answer especially when the population is growing in a city that is busy all year long with tourism. According to the Department of Justice Uniform Crime Report for 2002 the national average is 2.3 officers per thousand residents. I don’t know what they recommend today.

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