The Buffalo Police Department’s budget has grown at three times the pace of other city services since Mayor Byron Brown took office in 2006, an increase fueled largely by the cost of health insurance and pension payments for current and retired cops.
The city spends 54 percent more on police than it did 15 years ago. Meanwhile, spending across all other city departments has increased just 17 percent. That’s less than two-thirds the rate of inflation.
In inflation-adjusted dollars, the city’s spending on police has effectively defunded other city services.
The city spends less today than it used to on parks and recreation, on community centers and other public buildings, and on cleaning and repairing streets and sidewalks.
Factor in the burgeoning cost of the city’s fire department — its budget has grown 42 percent since 2006, also due to fringe benefits and overtime — and the rest of the city’s functions have suffered even more. Subtracting police and fire, the city’s budget for everything else has risen just 10 percent, one-third the rate of inflation.
Spending on some city activities has kept pace with inflation — and then some. Spending has increased dramatically for the mayor’s and comptroller’s offices, the Common Council and information technology.
But those increases are dwarfed by the budgets for police, which eats up more than 25 percent of city spending in the current budget year, and for fire, which accounts for another 20 percent.
Kelly discusses his story on WBEN
Ravaged by the COVID-19 crisis, the current budget year could end in a $79.8 million deficit, according to a worst-case forecast by the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority (better known as the Control Board), followed by a $46.6 million deficit the year after that.
The Brown administration hopes federal relief and casino revenues will keep the city out of the hole — and plans to borrow its way out of trouble if those hopes are dashed.
“We were on the mat before COVID,” Niagara District Councilman David Rivera told Investigative Post. “Now we’re really hurting.”
University District Councilman Rasheed Wyatt, chairman of the Finance Committee, predicts budget cuts are inevitable.
“Right now, where we are financially, we have to look at the police budget,” Wyatt said. “Everything should be on the table.”
Investigative Post requested an interview with either the mayor or his finance commissioner for this story. The mayor’s office did not respond.
Defunding everything else
In August the Partnership for the Public Good hosted a presentation on the growth of Buffalo’s police budget over the past 15 years. One conclusion: As the cost of policing has ballooned, spending on other city departments has suffered.
Investigative Post analyzed city budget documents from 2006 to the present. During that period:
- The city’s allocations for police services rose $50.2 million, or 54 percent.
- The cost of the fire department rose $32.6 million, or 42 percent.
- Funding for other city services rose $24.4 million, or 10 percent. That’s less than one-third the rate of inflation, pegged by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics at 31 percent.
City revenues have failed to keep pace with inflation, too. Between 2006 and 2019, revenues rose $77.4 million. That may sound like a lot, but it’s just two-thirds the rate of inflation.
Revenues have fallen short of expenses consistently during the Brown administration, in part because Brown has chosen to keep property taxes down in the hopes of luring new investment and residents to the city. The result has been steady deficits, which Brown has plugged by spending down the city’s reserves.
Some departments with budgets far smaller than police have seen significant growth in their appropriations: Management Information Services — the city’s technology department — has more than doubled in cost, for example.
So have the offices overseen directly by the mayor. Where the Executive Department employed 37 people in Brown’s first year in office, there are now 65 jobs in the current budget. That includes nine jobs in communications and intergovernmental relations, where in 2006 there was just one.
However, the growth in city spending has been devoted primarily to funding police and fire, and particularly to paying for pensions and health care. Those costs have skyrocketed across city departments, as health care costs rise and retirees live longer.
But nowhere is the cost more evident than in the police department, where an officer might join the force at 25, then retire at age 50 with lifetime health care and an annual pension of $50,000 or more, depending on how much overtime the officer can rack up in the last three years on the job. There are a dozen retired department employees whose pension benefit exceeds $100,000 per year.
Fringe benefits and overtime
Last year the average pay for a Buffalo cop was $100,000. That’s base salary plus overtime, court time, and other contractual add-ons. When you add in the cost of fringe benefits, the cost to taxpayers is more like $140,000 per officer.
Just by themselves, pension and health care payments for current and retired cops will cost the city $57 million this year. That’s 11 percent of all city spending.
In fact, those benefits cost more than the base salaries of the department’s sworn officers, budgeted this year at $54 million.
That allocation for base salaries doesn’t include numerous contractual boosts to an officer’s take-home pay. Overtime is budgeted at $8 million this year. (Actual overtime expenditures frequently have exceeded those budget expectations, often substantially.) Court time for officers is expected to cost $3.2 million. Longevity bonuses and holiday pay will add $3.2 million more to officers’ pay.
Those projections for overtime and supplemental pay add up to more money — $14.4 million — than the city has appropriated for the Division of Parks and Recreation and Department of Community Services combined. It roughly equals the combined appropriations for Streets and Sanitation and Permits and Inspections.
And that’s just extra pay.
The $57 million for police fringes is enough to pay for all four of those divisions and departments, plus the law department, tax assessment, information technology, administration and finance, parking enforcement, treasury, and purchasing.
Colleen Kristich, a researcher with Partnership for the Public Good, is working on a policy paper, to be published early in the new year, analyzing ways to reduce spending on police. In an interview with Investigative Post, Kristich suggested even small cuts in the police budget could be redirected to city programs that hypothetically reduce criminality.
As an example, she pointed out two appropriations in this year’s police budget: about $345,000 for furniture and $153,000 for office supplies.
The allocation for office supplies alone could employ three new youth vocational counselors at the city’s Workforce & Education Training program, for which funding has been effectively stagnant the past 15 years. The program currently employs one youth counselor. According to budget documents, the program receives 32,000 visits from jobseekers each year.
“The furniture and equipment budget could probably quadruple the size of the Mayor’s Summer Youth Program,” Kristich told Investigative Post.
But the real savings are not to be found around the margins of the police budget, she said. Nor does she suggest the police department should do without chairs and paper clips.
To really shrink the police budget, she said, the city should work to reduce overtime and court time costs. The city should also reduce the number of officers. The city could achieve those goals, according to Kristich, through policy decisions.
First, she said, the city should stop budgeting for cops who aren’t going to be hired. The current budget calls for 798 sworn officers; only 740 are currently on the job. City officials frequently include unfilled vacancies in budgets in order to create financial flexibility. But the practice has the effect of denying scarce city resources to other departments.
Second, she said, the city should institute a police hiring freeze. The city should reduce the force by not replacing officers as they retire, until the number of cops on the job reaches 700, matching its recent low in 2010.
Those measures would save money immediately, as well as reduce future pension liabilities. They would require contract concessions from the police union.
But fewer cops is not an easy sell for elected officials.
“On one of my streets just a couple days ago, a young man was shot and killed,” Wyatt told Investigative Post last month. “How are you going to go tell people in that community that we’re going to have less police?”
Right-sizing the force
In her research, Kristich cites a 2018 study in Governing magazine, based on FBI data, which indicates that U.S. cities with a population similar to Buffalo average 18.7 uniformed police officers for every 10,000 residents. As of July, Buffalo had 29 cops per capita.
Population alone does not determine a city’s public safety needs. Geographic size, income demographics and crime rates — as well as politics and contractual obligations — are factors, too. Anaheim, CA uses 400 officers to police a city with 100,000 more people than Buffalo, in a slightly larger geographic footprint. But Anaheim’s poverty and crime rates are far lower than Buffalo’s.
St. Paul, MN, offers a more apt comparison. St. Paul has 50,000 more people than Buffalo and is just slightly smaller in square mileage. Its demographics are similar, as are its poverty and crime rates. St. Paul has 600 sworn officers.
Before being elected to the Common Council in 2007, Rivera — chairman of the the Police Oversight Committee — was a detective sergeant. When he joined the force in 1982, there were about 1,200 uniformed officers.
That number dropped gradually, until the financial crisis of 2003 that led to the imposition of the control board. The control board implemented a wage and hiring freeze that reduced the size of the city workforce across the board, including police.
Since Brown took office in 2006, the number of sworn officers has fluctuated between 700 and 800.
“There aren’t the numbers there used to be,” Rivera said. “You’ll realize that when you need them.”
Rivera said he frequently fields calls from constituents complaining that police take too long nowadays to answer 911 calls. Wyatt said he hears the same complaints in his district.
“I know the residents in my district probably wouldn’t want me to talk about defunding the police, because they believe — and I believe — we need more police,” Wyatt said.
At the same time, he said, the city’s financial situation may compel city officials to pursue police reforms advanced this summer by activists and progressive think tanks like Partnership for the Public Good.
“I think we have an opportunity to right-size our police department, as well as right-size government,” he said.
The number of 911 calls for Buffalo police per capita didn’t change between 2006 and 2019, according to the Partnership for Public Good research, indicating that more money spent on police has not reduced crime. The number of arrests has been steady, and the clearance rate for homicides is about the same.
There is also the question of how highly compensated, expensively trained, armed police officers are deployed.
In her research, Kristich cites a US Department of Justice study indicating patrol officers spend 70 percent of their time on non-criminal matters.
“If police are removed from certain 911 calls (behavioral health and non-criminal things) and replaced with alternate first responders, [the number of patrol officers] could shrink a lot,” Kristich wrote.
In 2019, more than 24,000 calls to 911 were related to traffic stops. Another 8,000 calls were complaints about illegally parked cars.
“When you talk about someone calling the police because someone is parked slightly in their driveway, is that a good use of their time?” Wyatt said. “No, it’s not.”