We’re not ‘getting any bigger’

The old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” has never been more true than it is today. The old ways and attitudes always surface whenever the opportunity for change comes along. Mergers, consolidations, shared services across city and town borders can never happen until those who stand with clinched fists guarding their meager little “fiefdoms” get out of the way.

There has been much reported and written lately about school district mergers, or sharing law enforcement duties across city, town and village lines. Our population in Chautauqua County has gone down, not grown over the past 20 years. However, the taxes have done just the opposite. We need to share services and facilities where practical.

While populations are decreasing, we continue to expect services provided by the city and village governments to “improve” “be more responsive” and to “do more with less.” Yet, when our mayors and public safety officials suggest ways to control costs while providing the general public with a safe and efficient environment, we balk, dig in our heels, and fight an opportunity for change.

It’s along these lines that I’ve found myself in discussions recently. For instance, why haven’t we consolidated the fire and police departments of Fredonia and Dunkirk? Why are our tax dollars increasing, but we continue to hear about out of date and dilapidated fire halls and police stations? It all comes down to those individuals who don’t want change, and who are protecting their turfs, their fiefdoms, their interest in keeping things the “way they always have been.”

I spoke with Dunkirk Mayor Anthony J. Dolce, Fredonia Mayor Stephen Keefe, and Dunkirk Fire Chief Keith Ahlstrom. (I was unable to speak with the two Police Chiefs or the Fredonia Fire Chief.) The comments of those with whom I spoke were all very similar. I asked four major questions: (1) Is there now or has there been consideration given to consolidating the Dunkirk and Fredonia public safety services? (2) If not consolidation, has consideration been given to a shared facility, such as the D&F Plaza, fairgrounds, or another location that would be easily accessible by both communities?, and (3) If such a consolidation of services or shared facility has been considered, why hasn’t it happened?

The responses were basically the same, “It’s a good idea, we have discussed it for years, but it always seems to get nowhere.” This led me to my final question of, (4) What will be the catalyst to cause such a change? Here’s what they said.

Mayor Dolce’s initial response to me was in the form of a question, “Who says we aren’t doing something?” He went on to say that he and his staff are, “doing fire hall studies right now.” As to the issue of possible consolidation and/or shared space he said, “We are in constant communication and exploring all options, but we must make sure we do it right. We’re open to looking at options for both the fire and police departments, and we’re most definitely willing to share space as well as even looking at a long-term merger. But what makes the most sense is to look at ways to consolidate within the departments. Our communities are not getting any bigger and we must become more efficient.”

Ahlstrom said, “I don’t have a good answer, but we’ve had a lot of discussions over the past four to five years regarding both the fire and police departments; so far nobody has done anything. We need new buildings, but money is the problem. We have to look to the future and not just worry about maintaining the status quo. Eventually Dunkirk and Fredonia have to come to the realization that there must be consolidation.” He went on to say that he agrees with the most recent columns and commentaries printed in the OBSERVER that relate to these types of issues, whether it be the schools or shared government services.

I asked Chief Ahlstrom what he believed it would take to bring about meaningful changes. He told me, “There is such resistance to change in the cities, villages, towns, etc. It is amazing that people become allies to not changing. Eventually people are going to have to look for ways to curb costs and get over the ‘traditional’ way of doing things. The problems have been identified, now we need to find a way to resolve them.” Ahlstrom said that he and the other public safety employees and volunteers are professionals, “Put us some place and we’ll make it work. There is no doubt that if shared services and facilities were in place there would be better cost control, and the services would certainly not be diminished. A consolidation of sorts could be very beneficial to everyone; I would even like to include the town of Dunkirk and East Town, I know it could work.”

Fredonia’s Mayor Keefe said, “We are always in discussion about this issue. We need to relocate our police department; it is not a good situation. Four years ago, we looked at sharing spaces with the Fredonia and Dunkirk police departments, it was a good idea then and it is now. Both departments need to be in reasonable proximity to the courts, but it could be arranged. We all know that both fire departments are working out of older buildings; we need to do work on these as well. A shared space centrally located such as the plaza is not a bad idea.” Mayor Keefe told me, “there are current blueprints to accommodate a plan of shared space, but public opinion too often spins a negative light on these types of issues.” Again, I heard the same tune, “people just don’t want change, and they don’t want to give up their turf.” When asked what it would take to cause such a change to take place, Mayor Keefe said, “The catalyst comes down to common sense, people have to look to the future and give up their attitudes of territoriality.”

Individual identity is important. Personal turf is important. As Mayor Dolce so eloquently said, “Dunkirk and Fredonia aren’t getting any bigger.” We must do more than point our fingers and say it is the schools, it is the size of government, it is always something else. Well, sometimes it is us. If we don’t make changes now in the way we think about our future as a city or village, we may not have a city or village to leave to our children and grandchildren; if not our own futures, we must think of theirs. If Dunkirk and Fredonia are to continue to exist change must take place. It is time to share services when and where we can. It is time to share facilities – the current fire halls and police stations are old, let’s not throw good money after bad and maintain the status quo – let’s plan for the future.

Have a great day.

Vicki Westling is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com