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Metro ink - 12-20-06 

PAYING FOR POLICE

It was entirely predictable: When the county budget was approved last week, it was by a 17-12 margin --- the ratio of Republicans to Democrats in the CountyLegislature.

Still, the meeting wasn't entirely devoid of interest.

Democrats proposed four amendments, which were either voted down or declared out of order. Mostly they dealt with fairly minor policy changes and would've redirected (relatively) small amounts of money --- $100,000 in a budget of more than a billion.

But one amendment proposed a substantial policy change, one that would have reordered the way a major government service is paid for in MonroeCounty and, possibly, how it's delivered.

The amendment was to create county police districts, then charge residents in each district for their use of the Sheriff's Road Patrol.

Several towns in the county have no police force and often rely on the Road Patrol as their primary form of police protection.

Legislator Ted O'Brien, who proposed the Democrats' amendment, said the plan would save the county more than $20 million, by charging towns and municipalities for their use of the Road Patrol. The Democrats have complained for a long time about the inequities of a system that everyone in the county pays for, but that some use more heavily than others.

The City of Rochester, for example, and the Town of Irondequoit, which O'Brien represents, have their own police force. Those forces are the first line of defense for residents, and sheriff's deputies are called in only for backup or for special services. A town might need a specialized team that it doesn't have, for instance: a SWAT team, SCUBA divers, or hostage negotiators.

Democrats, who represent the city and the suburbs of Irondequoit and Brighton (which have their own police forces), complain that their constituents' taxes subsidize the public safety of towns like Mendon, Pittsford, and Riga (which don't have police forces).

If the county established police districts, the Democrats said, it could bill towns according to how much they use the Road Patrol.

The Democrats included this proposal in their package of budget ideas earlier this year. But up until last week's legislature meeting, public debate on a police district had taken place around the edges, at press conferences and in newspaper and television sound bites.

At the legislature meeting, Democrats may well have wished they hadn't brought the subject up.

Majority Leader Bill Smith ripped into the proposal, claiming it was "probably the most dishonest proposal" he'd seen in his 12 years in the legislature and suggesting that the Democrats' endgame was a centralized, metropolitan police force.

An impassioned Smith was prepared for this particular debate with stats and arguments. ("I've been waiting for months to give this speech," he admitted after colleagues noted his enthusiasm.) He opposed the plan, he said, not because it would mean additional taxes for his Pittsford constituents, who rely on the Road Patrol, but because it would jeopardize the police force of his constituents in East Rochester.

Small local departments depend on heavily on the Road Patrol. The Democrats' proposal "would drive them out of business," he said.

Smith read off the number of times the Road Patrol responded to calls for service last year from municipalities with their own police departments: 6,344 in Brighton, 48,394 in Rochester, 4,662 in Gates, 1,367 in Irondequoit. One-third of the calls that the Road Patrol responded to that year were in the city and in towns with their own forces, he said.

"That actually represents, in my opinion, the least amount of support the town police forces get from the sheriff's department," Smith told City Newspaper in a subsequent interview.

At the meeting, he enumerated some of the additional support. Because they can call for sheriff's deputies for backup, many of the smaller towns don't have to maintain as large a police force as they'd otherwise have to. They don't have to maintain costly units like SWAT teams and canine units. And they receive free training from the sheriff's department.

If all of those suddenly came with a price tag attached, Smith said in the interview, "this would price the cost of police departments out of the reach of the towns that want them."

The Democrats' proposal deals only with Road Patrol services, however, not with things like training and the use of special units. But Smith argued at the legislature meeting that it's not always practical to separate one service from another. In response to Smith's questions, Undersheriff Daniel Greene told the legislature that 174 of the 196 deputies assigned to the Road Patrol also serve in special units.

The complexity of the issue caused one Democrat to bail.

Assistant Minority Leader Harry Bronson joined Republicans in voting against the proposal. After the vote, he said he wanted more time to consider the plan.

--- Krestia DeGeorge


URBAN TRAIL GETS GRANT

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One major link in the region's trail system just got a lot closer to reality.

On Monday, Mayor Bob Duffy announced $2.2 million in grants to build a trail in a former railway right-of-way in northeast Rochester. The trail runs southward from SenecaPark to a point on St. Paul Street south of Clifford Avenue. Plans for it have been in the works for a while (see "Rail to Trail," March 15). But there've been plenty of obstacles, not the least of which is money to build it.

That money has now materialized, mainly in the form of a $2 million federal transportation grant. New YorkState and Kodak also pitched in, with $50,000 and $150,000, respectively. And the city is ponying up $395,000 to buy the land from CSX, which has owned the right-of-way.

The trail will provide green space and a recreation opportunity in an area of the city with less access to parkland than many neighborhoods. And with recent improvements to trails in the lower Genesee Gorge and a planned connection across the river at the MiddleFalls, people will be able to travel nearly all the way through the city on trails --- and connect with a larger trail network that includes the Erie Canal Trailway and the Genesee Valley Greenway.

--- Krestia DeGeorge


BORROWING APPROVED FOR WATER PLANT

The budget may have dominated last week's CountyLegislature meeting, but there was one other important bit of action.

The CountyLegislature gave the Monroe County Water Authority its go-ahead to borrow money for a proposed eastside water treatment plant. The plant has already sparked controversy, most recently at a public hearing held by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (see "Water Plant Wars," December 6).

For a capital project like this one, the Water Authority can borrow money one of two ways. The county can borrow the money on the authority's behalf. Or the authority can issue its own bonds; it just needs to get the CountyLegislature's consent first.

It makes a certain amount of sense for the county and Water Authority to take the latter course. As Deputy County Executive James Smith (a former Water Authority executive director) told the legislature, the authority's bond rating is better than the county's. That means it can borrow money at a lower rate than the county can.

What Smith didn't say was that it takes only a simple majority for the legislature to give its consent for the authority's bonding. For the county to borrow the money would require approval by two-thirds of the legislators. That would mean at least three Democrats would have to be on board, and Democrats have been critical of the eastside project.

The controversy over the proposal wasn't eased any by the fact that it was introduced as a "matter of urgency." Matters of urgency are designed to give the county executive some flexibility to get legislation passed in a hurry when a situation calls for it. But that bypasses the committee process, where legislators hammer out policy. It thereby bypasses much of the public scrutiny that most legislative proposals get.

And on this particular project, the Water Authority has agreed to delay construction for 18 months while the city and county negotiate a new water-sharing agreement. That made the Brooks administration's rush with the funding proposal doubly puzzling.

Minority Leader Carla Palumbo raised that issue, saying she was "concerned and surprised."

Smith's response failed to address the question.

"Passage of this does not change that agreement," he said.

But that doesn't address why there was so much urgency that the proposal had to bypass the committee process.

Smith's tautological response: "This would be the appropriate time to give consent."

The Democrats' attempt to table the proposal was defeated, and the legislature voted, along party lines, to let the authority borrow the money for the plant.

--- Krestia DeGeorge


Clare Regan

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Not long after it was founded, the Judicial Process Commission found itself lacking an editor for Justicia, its newsletter.

The JPC's Ginny Mackey asked Clare Regan, 'Would you take it one for two or three weeks?'" recalls Gordon Webster, a minister at Rochester's Downtown United Presbyterian Church.

Regan, who died last week, edited the journal for three decades.

"I would love it if someone else were to take over, but there isn't anyone else," she told this newspaper in a 2002 profile.

That's the kind of anecdote that Regan's friends and colleagues tell about her, the kind that points up both her intense energy in service to many causes and her ability to adapt in order to accomplish what she needed to.

And over the years, there were plenty of accomplishments. She helped found Catholics Against Nuclear Arms. She managed the first campaign for CountyLegislature for a then-novice politician, Louise Slaughter. In particular, she made a name for herself as an advocate for a better, more proactive justice system, including alternatives to incarceration and an end to the death penalty.

"When the Attica riots happened, that really started her interest in the criminal-justice system," says Bob Regan, the youngest of her six children.

What set Regan apart from other passionate activists was the extent and specificity of knowledge she brought to her work. Perhaps that had something to do with the discipline she honed as a graduate student in chemistry. Regan had a master's degree in the field and was pursuing a PhD when she stopped to raise a family. Instead, she turned her scientifically-trained mind toward the cause of justice.

"She inspired many of us around her with the detailed knowledge she had of many cases," says Webster.

Regan also took up the challenge of imparting that knowledge to others.

"I could always count on a line forming outside my office when she taught," says John Klofas, head of RIT's criminal-justice department, where Regan taught. Klofas's students include future cops, and Regan challenged many of them with her liberal ideas. At first, they complained to him, says Klofas. But by the end of a semester with her, even though they may not have agreed with her, most students found her classes valuable.

"It was great to have a balance," he says.

Even while providing balance to RIT students, Regan was able to find it in her own life, devoting herself to her children as fully as to her work.

"I'd meet people and they'd be like, 'Oh, you're Clare Regan's kid?'" recalls Bob Regan. "It was always a shock to them that she raised six kids" on top of everything else she did. But for Bob and his siblings, it was just the opposite: They barely realized they had such a prolific activist for a mother because of the time and attention she lavished on them.

The way Regan lived her life may have sprung from her own religious faith ("She really understood the theological basis for justice," says Webster), but it grew to encompass a truly catholic --- that is, universal --- vision of justice.

"We're all very, very grateful for her witness and for her friendship," says Webster.

--- Krestia DeGeorge


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