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THE COST OF PUBLIC SAFETY

If you want to know one of the main reasons it costs so much to live in New York, have a good look at the paychecks of your police officers. Many of them are making more than $70,000 a year. It's a lot, to be sure, but the problem isn't so much what they make -- cops do dangerous work and they deserve good pay -- but how many of them we have.

Look at it this way: In 1997, the village of Depew spent 27 percent of its budget on police protection. Lackawanna and Buffalo spent 23 percent. Even the village of East Aurora devoted 18 percent of its budget to police.

But in the towns of Clarence and Grand Island, only 0.8 percent of the budget went to police protection. Other towns recorded no cost. The difference? The higher-spending municipalities have their own police departments, while Clarence and Grand Island and others rely on the sheriff's department and state police.

Last time we looked, neither Clarence nor Grand Island was in the midst of a crime wave.

Police are expensive, there's no getting around it. So are fire departments. Many municipalities clearly have no choice but to invest in the protection that police provide, Buffalo among them. But can the same be said of all the municipalities that have built their own police departments?

For example, the village of Hamburg spent 17 percent of its 1997 budget on police services. Was that really necessary? Apparently so: The village board abolished the department four years ago, planning to contract with the town's police department (the town spent 19 percent of its budget on police protection). Village residents objected, and in a special election, voted to restore their department. Something similar occurred in the Village of Lancaster in 1990.

It's that way in almost all matters in New York. We complain bitterly about the state's high taxes while simultaneously refusing any efforts to bring about the changes that could ease that problem.

Part of the difficulty rests with members of the political class, those who depend on the public for their livelihood. As soon as someone mentions consolidated services, they go into fright mode, scaring as many people as possible with tales of calamity should voters actually decide on a more efficient method of government.

New York government is an accident in progress. Our pile-up of local governments -- county, city, town, village, school, light districts, fire districts, -- didn't come about because it was the best way to run a state. We are this way for no better reason than that this is the way we happened.

There is something to be said for local control, but the concept is not simply a greater good in this state, it is a fetish. We are so devoted to every one of our existing bureaucracies that we cannot bring ourselves to dissolve any village, merge any school districts or combine any police departments. We have to have them all, high tax or not.

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