How Much Protection Can One City Afford?

I mentioned in a prior article that the city of Jamestown lost 21 percent of its population since 1970. Despite that, most of us still look at the city as the heart of the community in Southern Chautauqua County. When we have a gathering to commemorate the sacrifice of veterans, we tend to gather in the city. When we have a Christmas parade, citizens bring in floats from many local communities and they want the parade to be in downtown, in the city. Most of the retail shopping has moved out to Fairmount Avenue, but downtown Jamestown is still, for most of us, at the local level, the center of our body politic.

The city of Jamestown is more than a small town of 31,000 people. When I am driving back from Erie on I-86 and see the name “Jamestown,” to me it means a region, all of Southern Chautauqua County. It is like the regional meaning we give to “Buffalo.” The Buffalo Bills are not a team that belongs to a city of 250,000 people clustered at the end of Lake Erie. The Buffalo Bills are a Western New York team! To me, “Buffalo” describes a larger region, just the way “Jamestown” does.

So it is not unreasonable that most everyone who lives in Southern Chautauqua County remains interested in what happens in Jamestown. You may live in Falconer or Lakewood, but you still carry a concern for the city as the hub of our community. A look at its budget over the past 40 years is revealing. On its face, the city’s budget appears reasonable. Budgeted appropriations for 1970 were $14,031,798; whereas, for this year they are $33,058,765. That budget growth is substantially less than cost-of-living increases since 1970, and reflects that the city has been trying to control its expenses.

Yet, when you compare the city’s budget from 1970 to its expenditures today, much has changed. In 1970, the city’s budget paid for the City Court, a landfill, sewer and water services, garbage pick-up, a General Hospital, a Social Services department, a golf course and an airport.

In 2012, it provides none of these services. These functions have either been discontinued, taken over by the county or by the BPU.

On the revenue side, in 1970, the sales tax contributed $575,000 to the city’s budget and the real property tax levy was $5,106,051. In 2012, the sales tax was estimated to bring in $5,750,000 to the city and the real property tax levy was projected at $14,320,055.

Since many of its 1970 governmental functions are no longer the city’s responsibility, where is the tax money going? The biggest change seems to be in the area of public safety (police and fire protection). In 1970, public safety cost $1,689,385 or was 8.3 percent of the city’s budget.

Today, it is $10,666,677 or 31.3 percent of the budget. However, a better comparison would be to add the cost of the state pension system to these numbers.

In 1970, the payment to the state pension fund was $358,910. This year, the city paid $3,590,000 to the state retirement program, about two-thirds of which went to the Police and Fire Retirement Fund. (The total benefit program for all employees in the City in 2012 was $12,863,931.)

If you add all of the benefit costs, including pension costs, I would estimate that approximately 55 percent of the city’s budget goes for police and fire services. Based upon this year’s budget, the primary work of the city of Jamestown today is focused on maintaining and paying for its police and fire departments.

Maybe all of this was planned or inevitable. But, it gives “perspective” when you compare today’s costs to what the city was paying 40 years ago for the same service.

We know that our police and firemen work hard and put themselves at risk each day for our common benefit. So this is not a critique of them. But, for the city, it becomes a question of affordability.

According to the 2010 census, the “median household income” in Jamestown was $28,789. Can the citizens of the city maintain a system where the median wage for a policeman is $70,000 per year and the average cost of employing a fireman is $65,000 per year?

When you add in the benefits, the average policeman costs the city approximately $100,000 per year and total cost for one fireman is about $94,000 per year. Their employment also carries a mandate that they are eligible for retirement at half pay after 20 years of service. Last year the city paid $2,420,000 to the State of New York to pay for that benefit.

Looking at the numbers, the issue of the cost for police and fire services is a legitimate question for Jamestown. There have been recent articles in this paper about combining police services with the county Sheriff’s Department or other police agencies. I am sure that the discussion is not being aimed at the professionalism of the city’s uniformed services but at the very serious question of what the city can afford.

It is a discussion worth having.

A Chautauqua County resident interested in analyzing public policy from a long-term perspective writes these views under the name Hall Elliot.