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CITY WORKERS NOT LEAPING AT HOME LOANS POLICE, FIREFIGHTERS COOL TO MAYOR'S INCENTIVE OFFER

For sale: A handyman's delight! Experience city living in the University District in this single-family charmer. Low cost, low interest rates available to police officers and firefighters only.

Low-interest home loans alone may not be enough to draw police officers and firefighters into some of Buffalo's deteriorating neighborhoods, where city officials hope they will live and raise their families.

That is the early reaction to Mayor Masiello's recent proposal to bring city workers back to the city. An estimated 60 percent of city police and firefighters live in the suburbs.

But similar programs offered in cities across the country have shown officers who put down stakes in crime-riddled neighborhoods not only deter crime but also build confidence.

"Bringing the officers into Buffalo neighborhoods will give them a 24-hour, rather than a 10-hour, interest in what goes on there," said Police Inspector James J. Degenhart, who helped formulate the loan-incentive plan called "Community Presence Program."

"So many officers have the attitude that 'I just want to do my job and get out of here,' " Degenhart said. "It's part of human nature that we want to protect our own turf."

And while the inspector admits the housing stock offered is not the city's finest, putting police officers in crime areas -- or near schools -- is the essence of community policing.

"They're not going to subsidize officers to move on Nottingham," Degenhart admitted. "They're talking rough homes in rough neighborhoods."

Under New York State law, city officials cannot impose a residency requirement on police officers or firefighters to force them to live within city limits. So this plan offers 4 percent loans of up to $20,000 per unit, or $40,000 for a two-unit house.

The 20-year loans would be available to police officers or firefighters, who must continue to own and occupy the buildings. The program, announced last month, will be financed by $300,000 in federal block-grant funds and will offer city or federally owned housing in neighborhoods that encounter unusually high levels of crime or fire incidence. Ideally, those properties would be located in close proximity to community schools.

"We would like to see the absolute best kinds of incentives, and this is a start," said Police Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske, who also suggested giving officers take-home patrol cars to enhance the program.

"Having more marked cars in the neighborhoods won't reduce crime, but it will make people feel better," Kerlikowske said. "In this day and age, there's nothing wrong with that."

The location and condition of the homes, on some of the city's crime-riddled blocks -- Winslow Avenue's 400 block, for example -- is part of the reason for the thumbs-down reception, according to sampling of employees.

"You couldn't pay me enough to move back in the city because of the conditions, the school system, the lack of protection in all areas," said one police lieutenant. "To live in the suburbs and be able to leave personal items out of doors is a relaxing feeling."

"If you were a cop, maybe you can break up a gang fight, but what can a firefighter do without equipment, other than maybe deliver a baby now and then or halt a fire" in its early stage? asked Fire Lt. Peter Kertzie.

"I wouldn't want to raise my children in a high-crime area," said one police detective who recently moved to the
suburbs. "If I was young and single, it would be a good deal."

Other cities that offer home-loan programs find that young officers are more likely to take advantage of the low mortgage interest rates, although they, too, reacted with initial skepticism.

In Atlantic City, N.J., where only 21 percent of the 400 police officers call the city home, response to a residence plan introduced last summer has been slow, according to Chief Nicholas Rifice.

The officer residence program would offer low-interest loans, accelerated monthly payment schedules and take-home city cars. Yet, while there have been many inquiries since the program was announced, there are few takers.

"We're trying to get 25 officers to move into the city," Rifice said. "Right now, we're processing four mortgages."

The Atlantic City plan, fueled by $5 million from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, requires that officers invest their free time in the neighborhoods.

"Even though these officers are not designated community officers, they will have to spend time setting up block clubs in addition to putting in their work shift," Rifice said.

Requirements in Atlantic City include:

Within three months of settlement, officers are required to visit every resident on their block and deliver a business card.

Officers will remain vigilant with respect to crime hazards (for example, crack houses) and conduct a survey every two months for the purposes of updating information regarding changes in crime patterns.

Officers will participate in the Neighborhood Watch Program. If one does not exist, the officers will assist in setting one up.

On the other hand, Columbia, S.C., has experienced a 16 percent decrease in crime in the neighborhoods where 15 officers have moved since the first home loan was approved in 1991.

"The reception at first was cool at best," said Chief Charles P. Austin, who commands the 311-member police force.

"The skepticism is understandable. They thought they were going to be 24-hour cops. We don't want people knocking on the door at all hours of the day," Austin said. "When they have a problem, they are told to call 911, not the officer."

"In truth, they have not been called upon by their neighbors to be legal counsel or to step outside of their jobs," Austin added.

Under Columbia's program, police officers are encouraged to buy homes that need at least $5,000 in structural repair. The city offers them the chance to buy the homes for no money down, lends them the cash to make repairs and pay closing fees and puts all the costs -- purchase, repairs and closing fees -- into a 20-year mortgage at 4 percent interest.

"It expands the role of police in revitalizing the neighborhoods," Austin said. "Each officer is given a patrol car, which he parks outside his house."

The idea of take-home patrol cars is not new -- in Buffalo or any other city. In the mid-'70s, "sentry cars" were given to Buffalo police officers under the same premise -- until funding ended.

Like New York, New Jersey cannot order police officers and firefighters to live in the city, with one exception: City officials can require that new officers -- when they are hired and join the police academy -- live in Atlantic City. What results, however, is that the vast majority of recruits take apartments in the city during their training and then, once they get their badge, they move to the suburbs.

Boston, meanwhile, just amended Massachusetts law to require residency for new hires.

Kerlikowske has made it no secret that he, too, would like to amend state law to require residency for rookies.

"Anyone who does want the job of a Buffalo police officer should understand they would have to live in the city," he has proposed. "If we have as many retirements (in 1995) as people said, this (proposal) may make a big impact."

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