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WHAT PRICE SAFETY? <br> MANY CITY AND SURBURBAN POLICE OFFICERS MAKE BIG MONEY -- SOME MORE THAN $80,000. THAT'S ONLY FAIR FOR SUCH A HIGH-STAKES JOB, THEY SAY. BUT TAXPAYER ACTIVISTS AREN'T SO SURE.

The highest-paid municipal employees in Buffalo's suburbs aren't working in Town or City Hall.

Not in the engineer's office, nor in the Accounting Division. Not even in the mayor's office or behind the town supervisor's desk.

They're in your local Police Department, where officers in some communities routinely make $70,000 or more a year. Some even make more than $80,000.

It doesn't seem to matter whether the officers patrol Buffalo and some of the area's toughest neighborhoods, or Amherst, long hailed as one of the safest communities in the entire United States. Or anywhere in between.

Whether they work in the city or its suburbs, police are the best-paid municipal employees around.

And it shows up in local tax bills -- except in communities that don't have their own police departments. Those towns and villages, served by the county sheriff and state police, have some of the lowest tax rates.

A Buffalo News analysis of municipal salaries in Buffalo and 13 suburban communities found that four out of every five suburban municipal employees earning $60,000 or more in 1998 were police.

Not unlike Buffalo, where about half the force made more than $60,000 that year, one-third of the 700 suburban cops grossed that much. Almost 10 percent earned more than $70,000. And 11 officers got more than $80,000.

"There's no reason the police shouldn't be the best-paid," said Michael Vishion, president of the police union in the Town of Tonawanda. "What we do is different from what other town employees do. They don't work the goofy hours or the holidays we do. The liability for us is unbelievable.

"The only thing we have in common with other town employees is that we all get our checks from the same comptroller," he added.

"I don't see where we're out of line with what private-sector people are making," added Sgt. David J. Zack, president of the Cheektowaga Police Club.

The News review found:

Police salaries in the suburbs, just as in the city, are pumped up with overtime, court time and other perks, such as clothing allowance and longevity pay. Those extras boost base salaries for top-level officers that are in the $45,000 range in many communities.

The highest gross salaries are in Amherst, Cheektowaga, the Town of Tonawanda, Buffalo and Hamburg. The lowest are in the Town of Orchard Park and the cities of Tonawanda and Lackawanna.

Police salaries are often out of whack with the rest of the local-government pay scale.

In Cheektowaga, for example, Dennis H. Gabryszak's $71,441 salary made him the best-paid town supervisor in Erie County in 1998. Compared to other Cheektowaga town employees, though, Gabryszak didn't fare as well. He ranked 24th on the best-paid list. Twenty-three Cheektowaga police officers made more than the supervisor.

Communities that do not have their own police departments -- those covered only by the state police and Sheriff's Department -- tend to have lower municipal salaries overall. For example, Clarence, one of the wealthiest communities around, pays its town employees considerably less than other towns that have their own police departments.

The News study found these police salaries take a toll on local budgets, representing one of the biggest-ticket items for taxpayers.

In Depew, the 31-member police force costs 27 cents of every dollar the village spends. Buffalo and Lackawanna each spend 23 cents of every dollar to police the streets.

And Kenmore's police claim 20 percent of the overall budget in the quiet village that has earned a reputation as Erie County's ultimate speed trap.

Added together, Buffalo and 11 of its first- and second-ring communities spent $138.8 million on local police departments in 1997, the most recent year data was available from the state comptroller's office. That amount accounts for 20 percent of total spending by those communities that year.

Yet half of Erie County's towns and villages -- some growing communities as well as the more rural ones -- pay next to nothing for police protection. Places like Grand Island and Clarence, for example, rely on the Sheriff's Department and the state police.

Satisfied with deputies

Supervisors in those communities said they are pleased with the police protection their towns receive, citing the quality of service as well as the savings.

"We get a high level of service from dedicated people who are familiar with our community," said Grand Island Supervisor Peter A. McMahon. "If we were to go into the police business on a full-time basis . . . local taxpayers would bear the cost. I'd have to hire 12 people, have an administrative staff, have a police chief, have office space, have a fleet of cars, have a communications system. I'd have to get all the pieces of a police department, and I'd still lack all the specialized services."

Instead, without a local police department to fund, municipal salaries -- and taxes -- are lower in Grand Island and similar communities that rely on sheriff's deputies and state troopers.

The owner of a $100,000 house in Grand Island, for example, paid $271 in town taxes last year.

In Evans, a community of similar size -- but with its own police force to finance -- the owner of a comparable house paid triple that much, $758.

It's the same situation in Lancaster, which has its own police department, and Clarence, a town of similar size relying on the Sheriff's Department and state police.

The owner of a house with a fair market value of $100,000 in Clarence paid about $166 in town taxes last year.

Across the town line in Lancaster, town taxes on a comparable house were three times higher, at $521.

Police salaries in New York

Police salaries in Erie County are in line with what police are paid in the rest of New York, and in many other parts of the country.

Still, police pay in Buffalo and its suburbs wasn't always this high.

Vishion, from the Town of Tonawanda police force, remembers making $17,700 when he started 19 years ago. Buffalo's Lt. Larry Baehre recalls a $7,400 starting salary in 1970. And he even had to buy his own uniform.

Police work, union officials said, has become more professional, demanding more training and education, and therefore commanding a better salary.

What's more, some said, departments are often understaffed, creating a need for overtime.

"Policing has changed, but the level of staffing hasn't," said Zack, president of the Cheektowaga Police Club. "We are doing a different job with the same amount of people."

Others said the catalyst for the higher police salaries occurred in 1974, when binding arbitration became available to help resolve contract disputes with police.

With a state-appointed arbitrator available to impose settlements, some argue it became easier for one department to get whatever benefits neighboring police unions had. It also became easier, they said, for local governments to keep their police happy without taking responsibility for the contracts -- contracts often sweeter than those most other municipal unions receive.

"Binding arbitration is the policeman's best friend," said Vishion. "Before that, we had to take whatever the towns gave us."

"It's easier for municipalities to say the (arbitrator) gave it to them," Zack added. "That's the easy way out for government. It's politically expedient."

Fueling consolidation talk

Whatever the reason, the cost of police fuels a debate on consolidation of police services around Erie County as a way to reduce taxes in towns and villages.

"Whether you should have three or four police agencies patrolling the same area is a reasonable question," said Jack Beilman, head of Concerned Citizens of Western New York, a taxpayer group. "I don't think it is necessary. Police protection, certainly. But you don't have to have overlapping police agencies. It just doesn't make sense."

But police consolidation has proved to be one of the most politically volatile issues in local government. Recent years have seen two communities vote down the chance to consolidate their police.

In 1990, the Lancaster Village Board wanted to dissolve the village Police Department, but residents forced the issue to a vote. The measure was defeated by a substantial margin, even though supporters said the move would cut village taxes by $1.3 million.

And four years ago, the Hamburg Village Board abolished its Police Department, opting instead to contract with the town police. The move would save $530,000 a year, proponents said.

But Hamburg residents, too, forced a vote, coming out in near-record numbers, preserving the village Police Department by a narrow margin.

While communities served primarily by the Sheriff's Department and state police are pleased with the service, Erie County Sheriff Patrick Gallivan concedes that residents in the region's largest suburbs may currently enjoy some benefits from having their own police force.

"Places like Amherst or Cheektowaga may enjoy a quicker response time than other areas of the county we patrol that are more rural," Gallivan said.

What's more, Gallivan isn't pushing to expand the jurisdiction of the Sheriff's Department. That's something that needs to come from the community, he said.

"I don't think it's up to me to say we need a regional police force," he said. "It hasn't been demonstrated to me the community wants one single police force in Erie County. It's up to the taxpayers in each municipality what level of service they want, and who they want to provide it."

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