DEPEW, N.Y. – From police to fire to the Department of Public Works, everything hangs in the balance in the Village of Depew right now. A week from Tuesday, voters will head to the ballot box to decide whether to dissolve the village into the towns of Lancaster and Cheektowaga.
The consequences are enormous. Thirty police officers could lose their jobs. More than 120 volunteer firefighters could face an uncertain future. Who will plow the streets? Who will handle the trash pickup? Will emergency response times lag if the village no longer provides those services?
Those questions were at the forefront of a village board meeting Monday night, which featured passionate debate and, at times, confrontations between people who want to preserve the village and people who want to dissolve it.
The vast majority of speakers during the meeting’s public comment session urged their neighbors to vote “No” on the referendum to dissolve. In fact, only two people at the meeting spoke in favor of dissolving the village, citing cost savings, lower taxes and a chance to eliminate debt.
They were met with a harsh response from the crowd, who overwhelmingly opposed all facets of dissolution.
“Our safety is at risk. We are not only putting our safety at risk, but we’re putting Lancaster and Cheektowaga at risk,” one of the speakers said, noting that she is a registered nurse and does not want to see the village lose its emergency services. “Even a minute without oxygen is the difference between life and death.”
Depew Police Chief Stanley Carwile said his department has already lost one officer and one dispatcher, both of whom feared losing their jobs if the referendum passes next Tuesday. Carwile said losing his department would have a severe impact on law enforcement’s relationship in his community, adding that it would be unfair to place such a burden on the police departments in Lancaster and Cheektowaga.
“They have the Galleria mall, all those other things going on, and the Town of Lancaster is growing by leaps and bounds. Their department is too small now—and they’re gonna take on our half of Depew? It’s not going to happen,” Carwile said.
Irv Reinig, one of the two speakers who supported the dissolution of the village, said he believes Lancaster and Cheektowaga are capable of handling the extra services. During his petitioning effort to dissolve the village, Reinig and other supporters have claimed taxpayers could save hundreds of dollars a year.
Reinig presented the idea of dissolution as a way of relieving the village of more than $8.5 million in debt.
“Depew has some of the highest property taxes in Western New York,” Reinig said. “Our village growth has been stagnant and infrastructure continues to age.”
But that argument didn’t sit well with many people in the crowd, some of whom even challenged that any money would be saved at all on taxes.
And others said they’re perfectly willing to pay a little more on their taxes, as long as it means keeping Depew’s services.
It should be noted that it's quite rare for villages to dissolve in New York state.
According to state records, no village in Erie County has ever successfully voted to dissolve. In fact, across the eight-county Western New York region, only nine villages have dissolved since 1900. All of those villages were located in Allegany, Wyoming, Chautauqua or Cattaraugus counties.
Most recently, in November, the rural Chautauqua County village of Forestville voted to become the first Western New York village since 2011 to dissolve. Forestville had faced severe financial difficulties in recent years-- so severe, in fact, that the village had at one point proposed a stunning 445-percent tax increase in 2014 to make up the debt.
Depew's financial situation isn't so dire, but the consequences of dissolution very well may be, according to Depew Fire Chief Scott Wegst. He said it’s possible his department, which is the largest volunteer department in Erie County, could potentially transition into a fire district if the village were dissolved. However, their future is entirely unclear because no plan has been presented.
Wegst strongly urged voters to vote “No.”
“We want to continue serving the village the way we are,” Wegst said. “You’re voting on an unknown. Nobody really knows what would happen.”