NFTA Spends $10 Million A Year On Its Own Police Force

8:53 AM, Feb 6, 2013   |    comments
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Buffalo, N.Y. - Here's a figure that's sure to catch your attention: ten million dollars.

That's how much the NFTA spends on its police force every year in salary and benefits - ten million dollars.

And NFTA is among the very few transit systems in the country that still has its own police force.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, out of more than 300 transit systems across the country, there are just 16 left which pay to staff their own separate police force.

Even the largest transit system in the country -- New York City's -- no longer has its own transit police force. The New York Police Department handles security for the subways in New York.

And across upstate New York, no other city has a transit police force, not Rochester, not Syracuse, not Albany.

In each of those cities the local police department takes care of security on the transit system.

That's one of a number of reasons why the bus fare in Rochester is one dollar, half of the the two dollars a ride that the NFTA charges.

And the NFTA has raised fares three times in the last nine years.

And don't forget, those increases hit those who can least afford it: the poor who don't own a car, or a husband and wife who work and only have one car between them.

Given all that, we wondered why the NFTA still has its own police force for the bus and rail system, this during this time when it's continually struggled to balance its budget.

Now we should not that a little over a year ago, the NFTA did reduce the size of its police force by about 14 positions, which brought it down to 90 officers. Those cuts saved it $900,000.

Scott Brown: "Has there been more thought to reducing the cost of the police force?"

NFTA Executive Director Kim Minkel: "We always take a look at things, one of the concerns is that we want to have a system that is safe and secure. We were very pleased by the results of last year."

And something very interesting happened last year - you would think that having fewer officers would mean more crime.

Actually the exact opposite happened.

Even with fewer NFTA police officers there was less crime, crime was down by about 20 percent.

And exactly what crimes are taking place in the system?

Through a Freedom of Information Act request we received crime stats from the NFTA for both 2011 and 2012.

It showed that the vast majority of crimes its officers handled were misdemeanors and non-criminal violations.

Things like disorderly conduct, harassment, and marijuana possession.

Scott Brown: "I guess the question is do you need a police force of this size, it's not like there are murders and rapes and things of that nature going on?"

Kim Minkel: "Well our police serve as an effective deterrent."

Scott Brown: "If you had fewer people last year and crime is going down doesn't that tell you something - that maybe you don't need these people?"

Kim Minkel: "We only have one year's data to monitor we'll continue to look at this, this year going forward. And continue to adjust accordingly."

Now it's important to remember that the NFTA didn't always have its own police force. Before 1984, Buffalo police simply patrolled the system.

The NFTA police force was added in 1984 when the transit line opened.

When the NFTA announced in late 2011 that it was going to lay off some of its officers, the authority's police union asked the NFTA to look into having the authority contract with the Sheriff's Department to take over its functions on the bus and the rail lines, that as a way to try and prevent those layoffs.

And so the Sherri's Department did a study. 2 On Your Side obtained this draft proposal and the Sheriff's Department said it could cut the NFTA's police costs by between one and two million dollars a year, mainly by eliminating duplication between the two departments...

Scott Brown: "Sounds like a pretty good deal, why didn't you take it?"

Kim Minkel: "There were errors with the analysis and they had looked at old numbers in the budget book. Subsequently we did sit down and go over the numbers and it wasn't a million dollar savings.It was actually a wash, there were no savings."

Scott Brown: "There is duplication right?"

Kim Minkel: "No we didn't see any duplication."

Scott Brown: "Well you have a police headquarters right?"

Kim Minkel: "Yes for the facilities, there may be some facilities savings. We're doing a facility consolidation study currently as we speak. Our police facility at 1404 Main Street is one of the facilities that's included in that study."

Another area of duplication is that both the Sheriff and NFTA have their own dispatch systems.

So, the NFTA says contracting with the Sheriff wouldn't save any money, and that despite the fact that crime went down last year, it's not willing to commit to further reducing its police force.

How about salaries?

We found that last year, including overtime, one third of the 90 members of the force made $85,000 and more.

Scott Brown: "Do you think that's too high?"

Kim Minkel: "Our officers risk their lives each and every day for the safety of our riding public. I don't know how you assign a value is that too much for a human life."

Scott Brown: "You have to assign some sort of value right, I mean you're not going to pay them $200,000 a year are you?"

Kim Minkel: "If you're asking me if they make too much if they risk their lives every single day no I do not."

Scott Brown: "Even if they make more than Buffalo police officers or deputies do, Sheriff deputies?"

Kim Minkel: "I would be surprised if our officers made significantly more. I would be very surprised."

2 On Your Side obtained figures from both departments. A Sheriff's deputy with five years experience makes a base salary of $55,000 a year, an NFTA officer with five years experience makes a base salary of $58,000 a year and Buffalo Police officers make a base of $64,000 a year.

Again that's base salary, last year the NFTA paid out $1.7 million in overtime.

When it comes to cutting its costs, the NFTA doesn't have to look very far.

Just down the Thruway in Rochester, the transit system there was able to cut its fare to a dollar, and increase ridership.

Again Rochester has no police force.

Its former CEO, Mark Aesch now runs his own consulting company, advising government agencies how to run more efficiently.

Mark Aesch: "In Rochester, we wanted to have low fares, that's what we were focused on, so we had a partnership with our local police department, that's what we did. It cost us nothing and our customers felt more than safe and our customers were able to have low fares."

An audit released on Tuesday by the state Authorities Budget Office says that unless the NFTA cuts costs it "will continue to incur future deficits" which could very well translate into more fare increases.

Scott Brown: "What's to stop another fare increase in a year or two as your costs go up?"

Kim Minkel: "Last year we rolled out a blueprint for the future, we've been able to control our costs, the actual costs to operate the system is less than it was the previous year. We put in a number of changes- economies and efficiencies throughout our system. If you're asking me to forecast what the future holds several years down the road I really can't."

WEB EXTRA:

Read the New York State Authorities Budget Office audit here.

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