Buffalo police officers are cracking down on motorists who ignore parking laws, papering popular commercial strips and residential streets with tickets.
Cops alone -- not the parking crews -- wrote 5,610 tickets in January this year, compared with 1,920 in January last year. The enforcement effort has been citywide, including the Elmwood and Hertel avenue strips and the downtown business district.
The head of the police union insists it's part of a new "zero tolerance" effort to enforce laws.
But a few officers who declined to be named told The Buffalo News that at least part of the crackdown is fueled by growing frustration over a wage freeze that has blocked officers from raises included in a 2003 agreement.
"We've heard the same thing," said Brian J. Lipke, chairman of the control board that froze the wages of all city and school district employees 22 months ago.
Regardless of the officers' motive, Lipke said beefed up enforcement of city laws is a "good thing." But he added that he understands wage freezes can take a toll on employee morale.
"Believe me, we take no pleasure in it, and we understand the morale issue. We saw the same thing in the steel industry for years," said Lipke, chairman of Gibraltar Industries.
Although police officers routinely have issued parking tickets in the past, parking enforcement generally has been the function of Buffalo's Parking Violations Bureau, which has its own crew.
The recent police officer blitz has prompted many complaints from businesses and residents who want to know what is going on.
Tickets written by police officers in January this year involve fines of $204,000, compared with $76,000 last January. The head of a group that represents businesses and homeowners along the Elmwood strip said some people have complained about "excessive" enforcement of parking rules. Some also have witnessed traffic tie-ups caused by police pulling over motorists.
Justin Azzarella, executive director of Forever Elmwood, said group members recently discussed the concerns with Mayor Byron W. Brown. It's not that merchants want police to stop enforcing laws, Azzarella stressed.
"But businesses and citizens want to see enforcement of things that enhance quality of life and their safety, not these kind of things which have negative connotations," he said.
Hertel Avenue merchants also have lodged numerous complaints with city officials.
State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, also sent a letter to Brown expressing concerns.
"Regardless of the motives or the rationale, this is very, very damaging to the merchants," Hoyt said. "They're being overly aggressive, and it will drive away customers."
Police Benevolent Association President Robert Meegan said that while the wage freeze has caused morale problems, he denied the dispute has prompted the stepped-up enforcement.
"We're just becoming a zero tolerance city," he said, adding that the effort should help curb other types of crime.
How does issuing parking tickets curb crime?
Meegan claimed a parking offense helped law enforcers catch David Berkowitz, otherwise known as Son of Sam.
Still, Meegan said there is no disputing that officers are upset by the wage freeze. He said the city and police union signed a 2003 contract in good faith that awarded officers raises in return for agreeing to one-person patrol cars and more flexible scheduling. The city ended up getting the changes it sought, said Meegan, but officers didn't receive promised raises in 2004 or 2005.
Brown wouldn't speculate on whether the wage freeze has spurred the parking ticket flurry.
"But these officers are doing their jobs. If cars are illegally parked, they will be ticketed," he said. "Parking regulations are posted for a reason."
City Parking Enforcement Director Leonard G. Sciolino said police officers have been issuing parking-related tickets in neighborhoods throughout the city.
Staff members in his office have been staying late and coming in on Saturdays just to keep up with the paperwork. The overtime tab will be dwarfed by the additional revenue, he said. Even if one in five tickets ends up thrown out after hearings, the fines would yield over $160,000.
"If [officers] could do this every month, it would mean $2 million a year in revenue," he said.