The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority police will soon find themselves in what has become a very familiar place for government workers in Erie County: on the street.
Beginning in July, the 26-member force will be dissolved. City police will patrol the housing projects. Buffalo Commissioner Rocco Diina is ready and willing to take up the slack. It's the correct response, since Housing Authority residents also are city residents.
Objections from Common Council members notwithstanding, public safety departments have become a luxury that few housing authorities can afford in an era of increasing reductions in federal aid. Cheap sound bites may garner politicians support, but they are just noise without a viable plan to address the economics.
Buffalo police answer high-priority calls. The Housing Authority police complemented the city force by answering 21 low-priority calls a day in 2004. But the Housing Authority cannot continue to spend money at the same rate with fewer revenues. Unfortunately, the authority has made it more difficult to make this common-sense argument, given the perks it set aside for its "voluntary" commissioners like trips, credit card spending, cell phones, insurance and stipends.
Nevertheless, even if more federal funding were made available, there still is no good argument for the authority continuing to have its own police force. For one thing, it is not a mandated service. For another, Housing Authority police forces are the exception, not the rule.
At one time, out of 3,300 housing authorities, there were only 11 with a public safety department. And those were primarily in large cities like Chicago, New York, Baltimore and Cleveland. Today, there are only four such departments, including Buffalo and the Virgin Islands.
Housing Authority police certainly did not help their own cause when they rejected a single health-care provider option. Police union President Craig Leone said they were negotiating to go to one provider, but had problems with the language. The membership, therefore, didn't pass the measure. Once the wording issue was resolved, Leone said, they could not get the authority to return to the table.
But that isn't the core issue. The federal Housing and Urban Development Department is exerting pressure through a reduction of operation assistance and demands that the authority not balance its budget through reserves, as it has four of the last five years. That means Housing Authority officials are being forced -- sometimes kicking and screaming -- to make difficult choices so that the authority doesn't end up with its own version of Erie County's budget woes.
Meanwhile, the authority is enduring additional fiscal pressure because of increased pension contributions to the state. In 2002, the authority paid $246,080. That shot up to $1.9 million last year.
No matter how you look at it, the inescapable truth is this: The Housing Authority can no longer afford a public safety department.