Chris’s Corner: Public Safety On a Budget

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By: Chris Voccio

Niagara Falls City Councilman

While campaigning for City Council last year, I emphasized that public safety was the primary role of government. I believed that then, and I believe that now.

Parks are wonderful. I visit them often. Planning is critical. Tourism enhancement, something I wholeheartedly support, is so important in a tourism city. But public safety has to be priority one. It’s the reason we have governments in the first place.

But does that mean we must hand over blank checks to the police and fire departments? Does that mean we must blindly support the police department or the fire department? Not as far as I’m concerned.

During the last election cycle, I sat before labor unions representing parts of the police and fire departments. I told them I felt public safety was the primary role of government. I also made it clear that we needed to run government, including their departments, at lower costs. I didn’t get either union’s endorsement. Nor did I expect to.

For some reason, we seem to have set up a debate where you either support the fire department and the police department, or you don’t. My question to you, dear reader, is this: Do you believe we can operate the police and fire departments more efficiently?

Another question we should ask is, Should we prioritize police and fire at the same level? Is crime control and safety from criminal elements the same as fire prevention and control? I’m not suggesting I have all the answers on this, I’m merely asking a question.

I knocked on a lot of doors during this past election season, and I heard from a lot of people that they are concerned with crime. But no citizen — not a single one — expressed concern about a fire problem. I know our firefighters also respond to medical calls, but perhaps there’s a more efficient way to handle those calls.

Some suggest that we move to a volunteer fire department system. I’m not sure that’s the best route. Although it is interesting to note that about a third of our firefighters live outside of the city, many in communities that have volunteer firefighters. Perhaps they could help us understand why they feel comfortable enough to live in those communities.

Another thing citizens should understand about our fire and police departments is that there are actually two unions representing different levels of personnel in both departments. There are unions that represents the front line soldiers, the boots on the ground. Then there are other unions that represent what is commonly referred to as “the brass.”

It is important that our public safety personnel have top notch leaders, so our “brass” are important people to keep the city safe. But the more you come to understand the union contracts that “the brass” have in both departments, the more you realize the problem we have with running efficient public safety agencies.

Then there’s the matter of salaries. 80% of our city’s expenses are related to personnel, and a huge chunk of that sits in our fire and police departments. And a huge chunk of that is heavily guarded by the unions that represent “the brass.”

Again, the brass are important to public safety. But are there no limits? Shouldn’t we be able to take a good look at the number of people that make up the brass, and the multitude of them that take huge six-figure salaries, not to mention Cadillac benefits and pensions?

While we’re on the topic of salaries, the Empire Center runs a website that lists public employee salaries. Some of you will find it fun to poke around and look at some of the salaries some of our officials make, public safety and otherwise. Here’s a link to the website: https://www.seethroughny.net/payrolls.

The more our citizenry come to understand the nature of the dual-union systems within both the fire and police departments, the more likely we’ll be able to have reasonable conversations about public safety on a budget.

 

Chris Voccio is a Niagara Falls City Council member and can be reached at ChrisVoccio@gmail.com

 

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